Sonoma State University’s Green Music Center is one of the most reputable venues in California. With such great prestige often comes an air of conservatism. This is because when the maintenance of one’s reputation is of such importance, it’s usually better to play it safe than to take risks. This conservatism can be seen in the Green Music Center when examining the performers and performances that are typical of the venue. Most of the time, the concerts held there are performances of traditional classical and folk music.
On Thursday however, the Green Music Center took a risk and made a bold foray into the avant-garde. The Faculty Composers Concert was held in Schroeder Hall andfeatured original compositions from three different faculty members at Sonoma State University. Brian S. Wilson is the professor chair for the Department of Music Theory and Composition, Doug Leibinger is the director of jazz studies and Kasey Knudsen is a teacher of jazz saxophone. Together with guest Composers John Mayrose and Ben Allison, these five musicians were given a chance to showcase their original compositions.
The concert started with a piece by Brian S. Wilson called “Klezmer Overture.” It was performed by the SSU Faculty Woodwind Quintet with Kathleen Reynolds on flute, Laura Reynolds on oboe, Roy Zajac on clarinet, Ruth Wilson on horn and Rufus Olivier Jr. on bassoon.
The song began with the sustained whistle of a flute that was eventually joined by a different note played on the clarinet. From the moment the two tones overlapped, creating an unsettling dissonance, it became apparent this composition would be taking cues from the progressive, if not rebellious school of modern classical.
As the piece continued, the rest of the woodwind instruments joined the fun and lumbered together along a nonlinear path of polyphony and dissonance. The song later materialized into an up-tempo jig that somewhat resembled an Irish folk song. The bassoon began playing a bouncing staccato bass line that the flute, clarinet and oboe weaved around creating a momentum that had me tapping my foot. The rest of the song consisted of an oscillation between amorphous dissonance and upbeat dances.
After the initial disorientation of “Klezmer Overture,” the concert really took a turn for the unusual. The next two pieces titled, “Random Access” and “Down River to the Rhythm of Rowers,” were written by Mayrose. Both were written for a solo instrument, but with live electronic manipulation. “Random Access” began with Drew Whiting coming onstage with an alto saxophone. He proceeded to clip a microphone to the bell of the instrument, put on a pair of studio headphones and jack into a computer that had been brought onstage. And thus, any remaining notion of normality was lost.
“Random Access” was a harsh listening experience that prioritized texture and timbre over conventional melody, harmony and rhythm. Whiting would play the saxophone, which was then recorded by the microphone. He would then use the computer and the PA system to play back the recording several seconds after it had just been played. This created a perplexing delay effect that made it difficult to be sure of what was actually being played and what was being replayed. The multiple layered voices of the saxophone reached a screeching crescendo at the end that was certainly purposeful in its abrasiveness, but nevertheless, a bit too hard to listen to.
The next Mayrose composition, “Down River to the Rhythm of Rowers,” took the same approach as its predecessor, but in a much more gentle way. For this piece, Mayrose himself came onstage with an electric guitar. After taking a minute or two to calibrate the computerized effects, he jacked into the computer in the same way that Whiting had.
This time, the music took a much gentler form. Mayrose gradually layered and looped so many different notes together, that eventually they created a shimmering flow of oceanic ambience. It was beautiful and meditative.
The second half of the concert began with the premiere of a three-part Violin Sonatina by Wilson. It was performed by Kristie Janczyk on piano and Matthew Vincent on violin. This was a dark, jazzy piece that could easily serve as the soundtrack to a film noir.
The concert closed with a healthy dose of jazz performed by Leibinger on trombone, Knudsen on saxophone, Allison on bass, Kirk Knuffke on cornet, Steve Cardenas on guitar and Allan Mednard on drums. The collective began with an original by Knudsen titled, “Waypost.” After that they played a Leibinger original called, “Slinky One-Pager.”
Once they had finished with these two songs, Leibinger and Knudsen left the stage. The remaining musicians comprised Ben Allison’s band called, THINK FREE.
They played the last two songs of the night. The first of which was written by Allison fittingly titled, “Roll Credits.” The final song was a beautiful cover of Niel Young’s “Expecting to Fly.”