On Friday, January 15, the Greece Olympia School cafeteria doubled as an informal music venue when the Buffalo-based ensemble Wooden Cities along with Olympia students -- led by their teacher, Aaron Staebell -- presented "an evening of experimental music."
And yet the experiment started long before the performance itself. The student musicians learned how to produce a concert, from creating and printing posters and tickets to engaging in media interviews and participating in workshopping sessions run by Wooden Cities and its director, Brendan Fitzgerald.
The concert consisted almost entirely of variations of an improvisatory composition called "Cobra," by the avant-garde composer John Zorn. Rather than use notated music on a page, Zorn utilizes 20 cues, in the form of letters written on cards. These cues may indicate that a musician plays a duo with another person, or that the players trade solos. One card calls for a drastic change in the style of music being played, another card requires a change in volume, while yet another card asks for the musicians to play "cartoonish" music.
Beyond these cues, which are given by a prompter (rather than a conductor), the actual notes played are entirely up to the individual members of the ensemble. Zorn calls this composition a "game piece," and a sense of play is inherent in the sound. The result is often as if one were rapidly flipping between radio stations.
From the outset, the students' composure and resourcefulness directly translated to an assertive, convincing interpretation of this sophisticated composition. While the sound produced by the student ensemble was frequently -- as one might expect -- delightfully cacophonous, an accessible groove emerged amidst the din. A soulful undertone with hints of jazzy big band textures was also present. In this first variation of "Cobra," sounds heard included a guitar-bass duo that was reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and the clarinetist and baritone sax player chirping back and forth using only their mouthpieces. Regardless of what was played, the players constantly vied for the prompter's attention in order to improvise, so the music was above all intentional.
Wooden Cities' version of "Cobra," presented as a sextet (including two vocalists) began with a heavy dose of ambient drone influence. The music quickly evolved into a wildly oscillating mix of sliding pitches, frenetic strings, the imitation of bird sounds and the whistling of the wind, among other sounds. Even a sample of Zorn talking about the piece itself was included. All of this amounted to a series of engaging, yet fleeting, musical moments.
In an inspired programming decision, Wooden Cities also performed a vocal quartet arrangement of the 1946 Dadaist poem "Ribble Bobble Pimlico" by Kurt Schwitters. Arranged here by Wooden Cities Associate Director Ethan Hayden, the vocalists stood around the audience, each in a different corner, forming a square perimeter. This formation allowed the audience to experience the sounds made by the different musicians in spatial relation to one another, a kind of natural "surround sound" experience.
An exploration of phonetic utterances, "Ribble Bobble Pimlico" features the titular phrase and the additional lyric "good deal easier" almost exclusively. As the listener hears the repetition of these spoken words, however, their sound and the impression they leave evolve subtly. The intricate rhythms -- complete with counterpoint -- and "sing-song" melodic quality of the work gave the impression of a strange incantation, an absurdist ritual.
"Ribble Bobble Pimlico" is an ecstatic composition, and the Wooden Cities vocalists performed it with poise and gusto. Their willingness to be vulnerable and silly was laudable, as they imbued a seemingly inane poem with seriousness of purpose. Like "Cobra," the piece deals with how we communicate with one another, through patterns and anomalies alike.
In a final and most successful rendition of "Cobra," which combined Wooden Cities and the students into a potent 18-piece band, one heard such varied sounds as a harmonica, laptop electronics, a squeaky and rusting music stand, and even literal screams. "It's really weird, but at the same time, as [the listeners] pick up what's happening, they notice how in sync everyone is with one another," says electric bassist and flutist Jay O'Neal, a student at Olympia. "It's more of a social language that hasn't really been thought up in words."
Rochester-area music organizations and ensembles -- classical, jazz, rock, or otherwise -- should take notice. A concert that educates and empowers young musicians through the rare performance of experimental music, now there's an intriguing concept.
Pianist Yuja Wang on Thursday and Saturday broke into Bartok and helped the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra reach new heights.