When describing his specific style, Arvo Pärt wrote, “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.” The Atlantic Guitar Quartet‘s performance at the Engineers Club of the Garret-Jacobs Mansion on Friday night was an extended study in this concept of beautiful moments. Jonathan Zwi, founding member of AGQ, received a Presser Foundation Award in April of 2011 to aid in quartet’s development of work and as artists-in-residence at the beautiful Engineers Club. Integrating new compositions, dance, visual art, and video installation, Zwi used the Award for many different projects. Fortunately, many of these projects and collaborations were unveiled at this last concert of their season.
The Atlantic Guitar Quartet has established a record of performing works by living composers including the East Coast première of Christopher Gainey’s “Flowing Through.” For this concert they commissioned works from a number of composers many with ties to the Baltimore area. Ronald Pearl‘s Be Not Afeard: Music from Prospero’s Island was a particular highlight of the evening. Pearl drew inspiration from Shakespeare’s The Tempest from a section in which “Caliban describes for the newcomers to the island that the sounds they’ll hear around them will be foreign and strange, enchanting and enticing.” One gets the impression that this piece could become banal if played by less-experienced musicians, but under the fingers of the AGQ the extended techniques truly come alive. During the second movement, And sometimes voices, the musicians were even called upon for vocalizations creating an eerie and mysterious feeling. The abundant range of extended techniques in most of the composition was impressive. For example, Fáir written by Fred Frith had Zwi using a chopstick while David DeDioniso used a violin bow pulled across the guitar’s strings to evoke different aural textures.
Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
The Tempest 3.2.148-156
The members of the quartet often talked from the stage about wanting to create a “playground of sounds.” In David Smooke‘s Topographies 2 (maps and) distortions, two of the four guitars were tuned down a half step to achieve sounds reminiscent of what Smooke calls “alien landscapes as viewed from a great height.” With all this discussion of extended techniques, new compositions, and non-traditional tuning, one may think that this concert was full of the scariest stereotypes of modern music. However, it was exactly the opposite. The effects were often subtle and in congruence with the musical elements and full of nature imagery like that in Christopher Gainey’s Meltwater.
It was clear that Zwi and the other members of the quartet wanted to have a special interdisciplinary element to this performance. Zwi worked with artist Caleb Freese to “develop a music video based on the quartet’s performance. Freese’s visually captivating and hypnotic works deconstruct concepts of color, light, time and form and the structural integrity that these dimensions share in creating an artistically coherent artwork, providing a new perspectives on music and performance.” In addition to the video installation, Zwi created a series of lightboxes made with traditional silkscreen techniques and painting that glowed from behind the quartet on stage. In fact, because the lightboxes were behind the musicians they were playing in silhouette which was a remarkable way to experience many of the ethereal sounds. There was also a collaboration with dancers which was framed by using one piece, Eclosion by Olivier Bensa, choreographed in two different ways. Unfortunately, I am unable to comment because my vantage point in the audience precluded me from seeing the dancers.
The finale of the evening was Kevin Shannon’s arrangement of Arvo Pärt’s Variations for the Healing of Arinushka. Zwi dedicated the performance to his grandfather who had recently passed by saying, “Simplicity can be its own virtue.” Although with all the elements of new compositions and collaborative art works this concert could seem overwhelming. However, it wasn’t. From beginning to end, it was an inspiring evening of music and art.