An explosion of music

Ars Nova Workshop presents Lea Bertucci’s Of Shadow and Substance

3 minute read
A black and white photo of Bertucci performing on a dark stage, looking at a laptop with a misty spotlight on her.
Lea Bertucci performing with Ars Nova in 2019. (Photo by Ryan Collerd.)

In June 2019, a massive explosion at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery, which had a footprint of more than two square miles in the densely populated southwest corner of the city, sparked a still-smoldering fight about the legacy and fate of the industrial site, which had operated for more than a century. Now, Ars Nova Workshop interprets the aftermath of that event in music, with a world-premiere commission by composer and sound artist Lea Bertucci.

Of Shadow and Substance, performed on May 8 at the American Philosophical Society, is a fine piece of chamber music combining the extended techniques and collaboration of free improvisation with a charismatic form that leaves the listener refreshed.

A surprising structure

The driving force of the performance was the duet and solo brilliance of the two arco players: cellist Lester St. Louis and bassist Henry Fraser. Playing within each other’s sounds to create lush morphing spires, they explored overtonal densities, spare shrieks, guttural plonks, atonal (perhaps intentionally dissonant) meanderings, and showcased the raw materiality of their instruments.

The rest of the performers could be classified as a supporting cast to St. Louis and Fraser’s duo. Percussionist Matt Evans created big clouds of sound by bowing various objects and occasionally hitting metallophones. Harpist Lucia Stavros intervened in these harmonically rich yet delicate textures with percussive slaps on the strings in addition to traditional plucking—though she did at one point get in on the antics with free-standing horsehair to create rustic drones.

While this may sound like a free improvisation, the overall form and cleanness of transitions suggested a very strong structure, if not actual through-composition of the piece.

Bertucci behind the scenes

However, Bertucci herself was noticeably absent from the onstage performance, instead manipulating tape and electronics whose presence wasn’t clearly articulated till the very end. If I were to guess, her role was to slowly sample and diffuse the sounds of her fellow performers, as well as introduce ambient textures through a quadraphonic speaker system.

It's hard to pinpoint this effect, but it was like a mist out of which particular fragments could be understood briefly before vanishing into tiny, reverberating aspects of themselves. Even notoriously abrasive acts, like when St. Louis picked up his cello and began resonating the untuned portion of the strings, glided through the mix. I suspect this was due to Bertucci’s manipulation and excellent sound engineering.

A genuinely interesting piece

Towards the middle of the piece, I began to experience moments where I thought I heard a performer play in a particular register, or utilize pizzicato, only to find that musician doing something completely and clearly unrelated. This effect wasn’t jarring or distracting, but rather pleasant. It was as if the time scale of the musicians’ actions was being fluidly manipulated in order to maximize an ominous beauty.

This effect was intentional and eventually culminated in a finale where the musicians slowly stopped playing, put down their instruments, and stared toward the audience, as the refracted versions of themselves were manipulated within the loudspeakers. This was probably supposed to be an auditory depiction of toxic forever chemicals, but I couldn’t help but smile, listening to this shimmering hiss.

The concert’s promotional materials focused on the damage of the refinery explosion, but for an uninitiated audience member, that might not be particularly relevant to the experience, except for the fact that this concept led to a genuinely interesting piece. Maybe there is a musicological element that could enhance our understanding of the 2019 event, but I’ll leave that to the academics.

What, When, Where

Of Shadow and Substance. Composed by Lea Bertucci. Bertucci; tapes, electronics. Matt Evans; percussion. Henry Fraser; double bass. Lester St. Louis; cello. Lucia Stavros; harp. Also featured was Work for Upright Bass and Amplifier, by Luke Stewart. May 8, 2022 at the American Philosophical Society’s Benjamin Franklin Hall, 427 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia.

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