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.
“What is it?”: Robert Wilson at Rice
“What we see is what we see, and what we hear is what we hear,” Robert Wilson said on March 27, the second night of the three-night Campbell Lecture Series at Rice University. I know Wilson first as the director of the opera Einstein on the Beach. But his theatrical genius extends before and after 1976, when the opera first premiered. Describing his impressive body of work, Wilson focused on a tension between sight and sound winding eventually to a question of meaning. It is by chance that we find a relationship between what we hear and what we see, he explained.
A few hours before this lecture, I had been editing a piece of writing about duration in Einstein’s musical score. While still relying on constraints of time in its compositional structure, the opening of this opera is not built around measures or time signatures. There is a durational relationship at work between three notes: the first A lasts forty seconds, followed by G for sixty seconds, and then a C for eighty seconds. I confess, although I’m embarrassed to admit it, that somehow I had missed the visual score entirely—Wilson’s grid map of time—which, among many things, swings a bar of light from horizontal to vertical in sixteen magical minutes. I’m left wondering now how we see and hear time. Can it be separated? How is the experience different?
To open his lecture, Wilson stood in silence for just over two minutes before telling a story about an architecture professor he had in college in the early 1960s. While she lectured, three screens flashed images behind her which had nothing to do with what she said. After seven or eight months in her class, Wilson remembers that he began to make associations between these unrelated things. One day, she walked to the podium with a black leather handbag, opened it, and took out a fish carefully wrapped in Saran plastic wrap and laid it on the podium. And then she began to talk about Bauhaus architecture without ever mentioning or explaining the fish. At the end of her lecture she wrapped up the fish, put it in her handbag, and left the room. The next day, she brought an orange and set it on her podium. “I’m still thinking about that orange” Wilson said.
Speaking about Einstein, Wilson insists there is no message to get, although this is not the same as saying it is meaningless. And here, again, the building tension between seeing and hearing returns. Wilson strives to create a visual on stage that will sound clearer than if one’s eyes were closed. As a striking example of his investment in a visual score, Wilson described how he staged Wagner’s entire sixteen-hour Ring cycle without the music. The final product was extraordinary.
It feels almost ironic to seek answers to the durational questions Einstein raises in both its aural and visual score. But it is also comforting to be so perplexed by a work. The reason to be an artist, Wilson said, is to ask questions—not say what something is, but to ask “what is it?” And if we know the answer already, it’s not worth doing.
The Campbell Lecture Series in Rice’s School of Humanities brings a distinguished humanities scholar each year to campus. Wilson’s last lecture in the series is tonight, March 28, at 6pm. He promises to speak about his recent work with Lady Gaga. For more info, visit campbell.rice.edu.