Loop38 in Groundbreaking Houston Debut

The word “try” implies a lot of different ideas from earnest ventures and brave experiments to risky attempts. It means taking a stab at something when you don’t know how it will turn out. In its debut concert last night at Midtown and Arts Theatre Center Houston, Loop38 humbly emphasized the idea of trying, but there’s no ambiguity about where it will land. With the creation of Loop38, something electrifying has arrived in Houston.

Loop38 is a 17-person collective of musicians co-founded by pianist Yvonne Chen and conductor Jerry Hou. It focuses on performing “new music,” stuff that’s being composed right now and in the near past, which means the collective will constantly be taking risks, shifting the foundations of what we know and challenging us to consider new musical realities.

The five works on the program, all written in the last 24 years, showed five facets of what these new realities could be. With Andrew Norman’s 2011 work “Try,” a sensational amount of different musical ideas intersected, from dynamics fading radically in and out to sliding tones and groaning foundations above which a frenzy of notes flew around. The eight minutes comprising Christopher Cerrone’s “Recovering” were sacred moments of evolving breath (musicians stood spaced out around the room breathing into their instruments) with percussionist Craig Hauschildt unassumingly in the fore striking serene resonances.

With a paradox for a title, Mizzy Mazzoli’s 2008 “The Sound of Light” toyed with open fifths, quick scales, and duple and triple meter. Christina Hughes, pristinely performing on the flute, aptly held one heel of her leopard print pumps suspended in the air for most of the piece. Likewise, in Hans Abrahamsen’s moving quintet “Herbstlied,” Katie Hart took the English horn into uncharted pastoral territory. The English horn denotes mellow peacefulness naturally in its timbre, but this was something beyond.

The concert culminated with “Living Toys,” a 1993 composition by Thomas Adès. Of all the composers on the program, Adès was the only one I felt skeptical about. His empty and vain 2003 opera The Tempest perpetuates the stereotype that new work is difficult to listen to. And so I was surprised to feel pulled into the work, following the coordinated uncoordination of so many sounds, lines, and melodies.

Jerry Hou, who conducted with understated finesse, joked beforehand about how hard “Living Toys” was to perform. And this is the other thing that makes Loop38 such a success as a group—no one there made it look difficult. The fervor and skill each one of these performers has is not something you’re going to see in Houston very often.

With Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s disaster world premiere of It’s a Wonderful Life at Houston Grand Opera this weekend lodged in my recent memory, I can tell you first-hand that new music doesn’t automatically translate as something worth trying, and I can tell you why so many organizations veer toward work that is already known and beloved. But this is also why we should all be clamoring for tickets to Loop38’s next concert. It’s cliché, but I’m going to say it anyway: this concert was a breath of fresh air. More than that, Loop38 is breaking unorthodox ground with intentional pluck in an era when we need that more than ever.

Sequence of Sounds: Brandon Bell at Rice University


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.