Wildfires, Fiddler Crabs: Fest Draws Music From Unheard-Of Resources

Unheard-of//Ensemble performing composer Christopher Stark and video artist Zlatko Ćosić’s ‘Fire Ecologies’ under the informally named ‘Echo Bridge’ spanning the San Antonio River (Photos by Mike Greenberg)

SAN ANTONIO — The pixels were still wet on the musicians’ iPad displays through nearly all the music in a festival of six way-out-there concerts on July 1-7 by the Unheard-of//Ensemble.

Established in 2014, the quartet consists of clarinetist and artistic director Ford Fourqurean, pianist-keyboardist Daniel Anastasio, violinist Matheus Souza, and cellist Iva Casian-Lakoš, all of whom earned their DMA degrees from Stony Brook University. They’re gifted performers on their acoustic instruments, but they also are dedicated to exploring an expanding universe of music that incorporates extended techniques, electronic sounds, field recordings, video projections, and unconventional venues.

A big component of their mission is working with young composers. Their San Antonio residency is an annual series of summer workshops, the Collaborative Composition Initiative. Ten emerging composers are invited to develop short new works for Unheard-of while working directly with the musicians in the few weeks before the festival.

Unheard-of//Ensemble at San Antonio Colleger’s McAllister Auditorium

Pre-existing music was not ignored, although the only standard work was a gorgeous account of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Some tempos were notably quicker than the norm, but the result was heightened urgency rather than reduced depth.

Preceding the Messiaen was CCI and Florida State University faculty member Liliya Ugay’s After the End of Time, a portrayal of the jagged emotional and social landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Unheard-of played the premiere virtually in November 2020, when the pandemic made live concerts impossible.) At first blush, the five contrasting movements seem primal and raw, their emotional content unmediated by musical structure, but soon one realizes that the whole piece, from the first movement’s “Chaos” to the transparent calm of the finale’s “Aftersounds,” is mounted on clear rhythmic and harmonic armatures. The concert was given in the physically intimate but acoustically spacious Mission Concepción church, a stone building completed in the 18th century.

Composer Christopher Stark and video artist Zlatko Ćosić collaborated in the 55-minute Fire Ecologies, combining live music with audio and video field recordings of nature scenes and California’s 2020 wildfires. The work was commissioned by Chamber Music America for Unheard-of, which gave the premiere in 2021 on a barge in Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, a Superfund clean-up site. In San Antonio, the venue was under the informally named “Echo Bridge” spanning the San Antonio River, which had benefited from a thorough “ecosystem restoration” in 2013. The central concrete arch projects sound splendidly between the bridge footings, which are wide enough to serve as a stage on one side and seating for 100 listeners (BYO blanket or chair) on the other.

The performance began nearly a half-hour before sunset, so Ćosić’s video was largely washed out until the performance neared its end. What could be seen was beautiful and varied, as was Stark’s atmospheric music, which closely reflected the mood of the visuals. The piece is divided into six “scenes.” The fourth is a furious, fire-spitting “Infernal Dance.” Messiaen reappeared in spirit in the third: The cello plays a very slow, lovely cantilena under an iridescent backdrop contributed by the other instruments. The music and the scene’s title, “Louange à l’éternité de Mere Nature,” refer directly to the fifth movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Much of the rest approaches the realm of the ambient, but always maintains a sense of direction. The closing “Marche funèbre” is heartbreaking and achingly beautiful.

Up a steep and narrow dirt path from the Echo Bridge seating area — the only access — is Tandem, a coffee house and restaurant. There, bassist Cameron Beauchamp (a Roomful of Teeth founder) and multi-instrumentalist Brent Baldwin performed their Lemmyphilia, which imagines a conversation in the afterlife between the writer-neurologist Oliver Sacks and Motörhead founder-singer-bassist Lemmy Kilmister. Beauchamp voiced starkly contrasting quotes from both in alternation; Baldwin offered musical punctuation on pedal steel guitar and assorted other sound sources, including a bowed bicycle wheel spoke.

Bassist Cameron Beauchamp and multi-instrumentalist Brent Baldwin performed their ‘Lemmyphilia‘ at Tandem, a coffee house and restaurant.

Nine of the CCI composers created short works (a few minutes each) inspired by and performed among plants at the Evergreen Garden Center. Most intriguing of these was KiMani Bridges’ Muhly Grass, for solo keyboard, portraying a worm climbing from the depths to the heavens.

The workshopped pieces by all 10 composers were split between two concerts in McAllister Auditorium at San Antonio College, where Anastasio teaches. (The musicians and audience occupied the bare stage, leaving the hall seats empty.) Each work revealed a distinctive voice.

Some standouts:

Nicholas Batina, who studied under Ugay at Florida State University, produced a thoroughly delightful octet (the members of Unheard-of both live and pre-recorded) called En Route (to an installation in Brooklyn). The foundation of Batina’s craft is complex, energetic, fluid counterpoint, with many sudden changes in rhythm, meter, and tempo — eight entrancing minutes without a second wasted.

Members of Unheard-of working inside the piano with wood dowels in Alyssa Wixson’s ‘Among Roots and Reeds’

Geli Li, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin, created a set of variations for piano trio — not variations on a melodic theme, but on a structural shape. The underlying idea, she explained before the performance, was an attempt to inhale without exhaling. This was expressed in ascending passages that grew louder until they reached an explosive end — one idea, but with plenty of variety in the working out.

Daniel de Togni is a St. Louis native who is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Oregon. (Unable to travel to San Antonio, he participated in workshop sessions by Zoom.) The title of his Postcards from Veneto refers to the Italian side of his family, but the piece opens with spare, disjunct music recalling the traditional music of Japan — the other side of his family. Those scattered tones steadily knitted together to become melodic, and eventually transform into music evoking the Renaissance. The piece then reverses course, returning to the disjunct character of the beginning. The structure is a clear arch. Well, he is from St. Louis. 

Alyssa Wixson’s Among Roots and Reeds was inspired by the sounds of fiddler crabs on the north shore of Long Island near Stony Brook University, where the composer earned a master of arts in composition. The piece combines field recordings, prepared piano, B-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, and violin and cello “bowed” with thin wooden dowels of various lengths. The live music complemented the crustacean chorus neatly, and the piece had an intriguing close, with all four musicians working on the piano strings with dowels. Pianist Anastasio emulated a fiddler crab by rubbing one dowel against another, which transferred the vibration to a high piano string. The aural effect was mesmerizing.