The mental space of a chamber concert is that of a still lake. No phone, no talking, no distractions; it amplifies not only the sounds and sights of one’s surroundings, but one’s own interiority. In early May, Fire Museum Presents offered two unorthodox transformations of the concert headspace within Vox Populi’s Black Box theater: Erik Ruin’s Ominous Cloud brought a semi-improvised interpretation of Bertolt Brecht’s To Those Born After, and ThingNY performed its recently premiered piece You Must Read a Lot of Jung.
Time, space, and timbre
Wildly varying in approach, each ensemble contributed to an evening of contrasts, conscious and unconscious: improvisations and through-composition, things spoken and unspoken. The concert began with a polite direction from Jung composer and clarinetist Dave Ruder for the audience to encompass the ensemble a full 360 degrees.
After some brief shuffling, the piece began in earnest with soothing, reedy sweeps from vocalist Gelsey Bell against a delicately played cymbal, whose lush overtones and throbbing bass provided colorful accompaniment. It is the humble clarity of timbres which provides Jung with its most aesthetically pleasing moments. The piece is dominated by plump but rhythmically articulated melodic tradeoffs that call to mind folk traditions and the English composers Benjamin Britten and Lennox Berkley. An occasional punctuation of dissonance provides a semblance of shape to an otherwise run-on form.
While I loved the intimacy of the performance and fine playing, half an hour felt too long for a piece that never seemed to coalesce or move beyond the presentation of pleasant tonality. And the question continues to dog me: How does this relate to Carl Jung or his theories?
After another brief shuffle to set the stage for Erik Ruin’s two overhead projectors between walls of musicians, the piece commenced. A pile of jagged spirals cast shadows along the back wall, an accordion wheezed richly, and speaker Jenna Horton narrated. Brecht’s poem, written in exile during World War II, deals with themes of survivors' guilt, dissolution from society, and doubting one’s own worth. It is the conscious screaming at abundance in the face of horror.
The rest of the cloud slowly filtered in as Horton went through her first read of the poem, building tension and color. At the end of the first reading came an unexpected climax, a loud awakening of all the players, a synthesis between the handcut illustrations and the music. Layers of patterns rumbled and turn in on themselves, creating sensations of awe and bodily transfiguration. Simply put, the visual and musical elements overrode my sense of self. These moments would continue throughout the rest of piece, with only brief abatements.
On a technical level, it was impressive how comfortable each musician was playing as a part of a unit, fitting harmonically within each other’s sound despite having incredibly different timbres. The octet consisted of a custom synthesizer (alternating with a Turkish spike fiddle) playing alongside an amped bass accordion, two electric guitars, a drum set, two violists, and a harp.
While the instruments themselves were eclectic, the ensemble was formed by all-stars from Philadelphia’s avant-garde music scene (David Hotep, Scott Verrastro, Veronica MJ, Julius Masri, and Jesse Sparhawk were among those playing). Acoustic and electric, quantized and unquantized, tonal and atonal, all came together to produce a sonic mass that was understandable yet deeply mysterious. Despite the piece being semi-improvised, there was counterpoint, rhythmic and melodic, with discernable forms emerging from the narratives and potent imagery of Bertolt Brecht’s To Those Born After. This emergence gave the music a mystical feeling, as if these harsh realities and metaphysical unknowns vibrated in the air around you.
What, When, Where
You Must Read a Lot of Jung, by Dave Ruder; performed by ThingNY. To Those Born After by Bertolt Brecht, in a semi-improvised interpretation by Erik Ruin’s Ominous Cloud Ensemble. Fire Museum Presents. May 5, 2019, at the Black Box at Vox Populi, 319 N. 11th Street, 3rd floor, Philadelphia. (215) 238-1236 or voxpopuligallery.org.
Vox Populi is accessible to some wheelchairs via a portable ramp and elevator, but any patrons with assistive devices are encouraged to call the gallery in advance or email [email protected].