Appreciating what some might term “noise” as music brings John Cage and his four minutes and thirty-three seconds of “silence” most readily to mind. But Liminal Space’s season-opening concert of electro-acoustic music recalls an earlier moment in twentieth-century music philosophy: Luigi Russolo’s futurist manifesto The Art of Noises, written in March, 1913. It advocates a shift to accept the sea of sound mankind inhabits, to consider what was previously perceived as “noise” to be a new realm of potential timbre, and to embrace a new musical reality while begging the “modern orchestra” to “Let us go!” This concert, titled “Time and Tension,” offers just such an escape from conventional restraints.
Liminal Space is a contemporary music ensemble in Houston comprised of composer and electric guitarist George Heathco and percussionist Luke Hubley. This concert marks the opening to their second full season, which promises a line-up of Steve Reich, D.J. Sparr, and Orianna Webb. The final concert in May will feature all nine works from a specially-commissioned project Liminal Space created called The New Music Initiative. If the commissioned work performed at this concert is any indication, it’s not going to be a concert to miss.
It’s hard to imagine a lighter way to open a time-and-tension-themed performance than with composer Jacob TV’s The Body of Your Dreams. Arranged for guitar and marimba by Liminal Space, the aural backdrop to this piece is a late-night infomercial for a weight-loss product. The tape, strategically mixed to repeat inelegant but embarrassingly familiar phrases like “Ladies listen to this: that cellulite and flabbiness…that cellulite and flabbiness…” was wildly funny. A dotted rhythm provided some continuity while music and recorded speech spun above it in a strange but groovy combination akin to Robert Ashley’s opera That Morning Thing. A somber mood struck as a voice confessed “I’ve had problems with these love handles on the side.” But the piece picked right back up with success stories and grand promises of finally getting that body you’ve always dreamed about.
The jovial mood of The Body of Your Dreams faded quickly as Heathco scraped his guitar pick down his strings for the night’s world premiere. Written by Hugh Lobel, The Lotus City Songbook is set in three movements and is part of Liminal Space’s commissionary series. The program notes cited an imagined a day in the life of Buddhist figure Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, who embodies compassion and listens to suffering of existence. The rhythm swayed between duple and triple meter; hardcore guitar solos rocked over a steady xylophone beat.
Decibel levels, oddly, might have been the breaking point for noise, at least in Russolo’s terms. Percussionist Brandon Bell joined Hubley and Heathco for the last two pieces of the evening, Diving Bell and the two-movement Tension Studies. Diving Bell is scored for amplified triangles with electronics. This translates as two performers bending over two parallel racks of triangles, tapping or scraping the triangles, and then moving a microphone around the instruments. In a nutshell: triangle, microphone, feedback. At times, the feedback became that excruciating screech—the familiar sound of someone awkwardly adjusting a microphone—that makes a person compulsively protect their ears. Moving into Tension Studies, the collaboration of all three performers and their electronics produced a sound that felt like it hit not only your face, but your whole body. In the closing measures, Bell picked up a hammer and pounded a foreign mound of metal.
This closing music wasn’t easy to listen to, but that certainly didn’t make it less awesome. And this sentiment is, in part, what makes Liminal Space a revolutionary ensemble in Houston right now. The first time I heard Liminal Space was at a concert devoted to David Lang’s music last season (Theodore Bale was kind enough to invite me to be a guest contributor about it at his blog). Like this concert, it was a combination of peaceful, humorous work and tumultuous pieces that represent what I would cite as the relentless twentieth-century quest for new music in an old world. Liminal Space brings this tension to Houston, unafraid and unassuming.
Liminal Space’s next concert is December 11 at The Barn—I wouldn’t miss it if I were you. Check out their website for more info: http://liminalspacemusic.com/