How does sequence affect sound? I wondered this last night watching Brandon Bell move quietly from playing a wine glass with a bow to wringing wet washcloths out on his knees. His dynamic recital in the Hirsch Orchestra Rehearsal Hall, “Plugged In: New Music for Solo Percussion and Electronics,” began with a bell, ended with a flame, and made aural chronology an introspective experience.
Bell is the Malcolm W. Perkins Teaching Fellow at the Rice University Shepherd School of Music, and innovation seems to attach naturally to his work. Last September, for example, he organized the Houston premiere of John Luther Adams’ 2009 “Inuksuit” at the James Turrell Skyspace. Adams, who won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for the mysterious and epic “Become Ocean,” is rising quickly in the ranks of great American composers, although his work is rarely heard in Houston.
Unwinding sounds, Bell programmed a concert of four premieres. The first, “[relictumne sum]” is a new piece by Ian Power, commissioned by Bell with the support of a Presser Graduate Music Award from Rice. A memorable piece of music will ask provoking questions. [relictumne sum] began with a repeated ringing sound, shifted to a bowed wine glass, and culminated with washcloths and water dripping musically off of Bell’s fingers. It’s an understatement to say the piece was refreshingly evocative. It was followed by Andrea Mazzariello’s “Forms of Practice,” which spiraled rhythm to finally groove into a common time signature.
The icy music of Matthew Burtner, “The Sonic Physiography of a Time-Stretched Glacier,” was stunningly beautiful. Electronic sounds of running water complemented shuddering pulsations from a golden vibraphone, inspiring mercurial visions of liquid. Bell is a serious performer who commits fully without any trace of pretentiousness. In concert, he gives the impression of respecting each sound individually, as if they have come to a peaceful understanding. As he slid a bow against a vibraphone key to end the piece, it was like watching two friends embrace.
Moving from ice to fire, the final piece on the program, “500 Great Things About Wichita,” was described in the program by its composer, Chapman Welch, in the form of a haiku:
ritual click bait
sparks on electric jelly
inside crab orchards
Bell started this piece by slapping his hands against his chest. The stark contrast between electronic sound blaring and the sound of the human body added incredible intention to the aural progression throughout the concert. This piece ended, dramatically, with striking flame from a Zippo lighter. “Sparks on electric jelly / inside crab orchards” lined up with the flickering purple glow. With such attention to the chain of musical sounds—increasingly new and surprisingly radiant—I can’t wait to hear what Bell does next.