LIVE: Contact Ensemble’s “Elevated” @ EMPAC, 9/3/09

I can still hear the circular scraping drone of an amplified brake drum.

The music of David Lang – Pulitizer Prize winning composer and co-founder of Bang On a Can – is langorous, spooling out slowly like late-night fog drifting across a country road.

The Canadian new music group Contact Ensemble launched the fall performance season at RPI’s EMPAC in Troy on Thursday, September 3, with “Elevated,” a program of five Lang compositions each matched with a visual component by a different filmmaker.

There was plenty of variation throughout the evening, on both sonic and visual fronts. The evening opened with “Wed,” a delicate solo piano piece dabbled with dissonance, set to “Treat Bottle,” a 1972 William Wegman video in which a dog attempts to get at a treat that’s inside a glass milk bottle.

“How to Pray” was a dark storm of a piece for sextet with Sarah Fraser Raff’s violin soaring over the pummeling piano/electric guitar rhythms, as filmmaker Bill Morrison’s distressed, vintage footage of icebergs dissolved into a semi-abstract wash.

The program described “Heroin” as “music/lyrics by Lou Reed, arranged by David Lang,” but Lang’s piece was certainly no mere arrangement or even re-arrangement of the old Velvet Underground nugget. It was total, virtually unrecognizable re-invention. The program would be more accurate in saying “based on…” or “inspired by..” An intimate, somber meditation, Lang’s duet for voice (Nadine Medawar) and cello (Mary Katherine Finch) was matched to Doug Aitken’s close-ups of people sleeping – their eyes, their hands, their mouths. It was also the only color film of the evening.

“Little Eye” closed out the first half of the program with cellist Finch once again in the spotlight, although this time fronting a larger ensemble. But I’ll admit that Lang’s music didn’t make such a big impression (other than the metallic scraping of the aforementioned brake drum), as I was completely mesmerized by Guy Maddin’s short film, “Odilon Redon,” one of his typically low-tech, throwback, surrealist fairy-tales. The music seemed to pick back up after the film ended and Finch dropped out, however, emerging as a sparkling, minimalist gem.

The evening concluded with “Men,” a 45-minute ambient elegy with a genuinely tranportative quality – and lots more scraping brake drum sounds. The ensemble – now swollen to 11 members, including two grand pianos and a four-piece horn section – seemed a bit too aggressive, too overpowering for the floating, dreamlike nature of the music, often pushing it along rather than allowing it to seek its own level. The piece was accompanied by Matt Mullican’s “Elevated.” Like Morrison’s, it was an assemblage of found film footage, in this case, mid-30s vintage footage of New York City from New Year’s Eve in Times Square to sweltering summer swimming at Coney Island. Very other-worldly stuff.

Click here to read Joseph Dalton’s review of the performance in the Times Union.

I agree with Dalton that some program notes – any notes at all – might have been helpful. And it was also disappointing that a scheduled pre-concert talk was cancelled. Especially since not a single word was spoken from the stage all night long. For the first show of EMPAC’s new season (and only the second season, too), it was surprising that there was no introduction, no welcome, no “thanks for coming.” It all seemed a bit too sterile.

Three of the evening’s pieces – “Wed”/”Treat Bottle,” “How to Pray” and “Men”/”Elevated” – are available on David Lang’s “Elevated,” a 2005 combination CD and DVD package from Cantalope Music. They are not, however, performed by the Contact Ensemble. “Heroin,” “How to Pray” and “Wed” can also be heard (although not seen) as performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project on David Lang’s 2008 album, “Pierced,” on the Naxos American Classics label.

And on the filmic end of things, I would heartily recommend Bill Morrison’s mindbending “Decasia” and anything by Canadian director Guy Maddin, especially “Brand Upon the Brain.”

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