NEW YORK — It’s rare that the stage setting for a recital looks like the tropical greenhouse at the botanical gardens. Rarer still, the plants are the primary instruments. That was the situation in Merkin Hall at the Kaufman Music Center on Jan. 18 when Angélica Negrón premiered a song cycle called Los (ostros) estados / The (Other) Stories.
The instruments were the work of Brooklyn-based botanical sculptor Sophie Parker, their stems and branches upheld in metalwork created by Micah Rosenblatt. Most of the clusters of plants, stretching six or seven feet high — their top leaves were well above the reach of the diminutive Negrón — featured deep greens, yellows, and reds. Center stage was a contrasting piece, bursting with blue and pink blossoms.
The most-used instrument was a spray of birds-of-paradise supported by an angular sheet of black metal. Another creation had an upward arc of yellow pipe ending in a massive fern frond. At the lip of the stage was a citrus-themed instrument, emerging from a pile of oranges, pomelos, and limes and orbited by 40 or so clementines strung on a wire.
In reality, however, the plants themselves were not instruments. Nor were the metal items. The sculptures were merely pleasing, and sometimes humorous, decorations to hide electronic elements. Rasping or hooting noises sounded when blossoms were squeezed; percussive patterns emerged from the flick of a stem; a rubbed grapefruit rind produced a bell-like tone. Live and pre-recorded sampling and looping made up the primary sound source for Negrón’s 12-movement work. Twice she sat with her back to the audience and watched as Michael Anthony Carter’s video projections splashed color on the back wall to pre-recorded sounds.
Only half of the movements had lyrics, although there were many vocal samples among the sonic layers in the instrumental movements. Five of the Spanish-language texts, abstractions with titles like “Fleeting” and “Plasmatic,” were by Negrón, who is Puerto Rican, and one was a poem by Peruvian poet Blanca Varela, aptly titled “Flowers for the Ear.” The singing was done by Negrón, if “singing” is the right word. Her voice is a mutter, a mewl, barely more than a whisper, kept bafflingly low in the electronic balance. Even a native Spanish-speaker would have had trouble understanding her, and the low house lights made it impossible to follow the libretto. Her voice, words and all, became just so much added data. Someday I hope to hear those songs sung by a strong, in-tune voice.
The music of Los (otros) estados manifested as dense atmospheres of sound, matching the visual richness of the floral giants onstage. Negrón is an experienced and celebrated composer — her impressive list of commissions includes the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Roomful of Teeth, Kronos Quartet, and the New York Philharmonic. She knows how to sculpt musical tones and noises into complex sound worlds. Although there were passages pulsing with Latin beats, in general the underlying rhythmic patterns gave the illusion of being random and wild, a thousand tiny ideas at once, like the tropical forests represented by the plants. Her ability to take over the listener’s brain with her musical molecules makes her a sought-after composer of indie film scores.
While she kept busy scurrying from plant to plant and occasionally picking up her accordion, Negrón was rarely alone onstage. Phong Tran joined her for a couple of numbers on modular synth. Negrón’s main partner was Darian Donoval Thomas, who played wired-up violin with his hands (often giving the impression of improvisation) and various synthesizing pedals with his (mismatched) stockinged feet. He and Negrón had a warm and responsive chemistry, each seeming to inspire the other.
As one of the Kaufman Music Center’s current artists-in-residence, Negrón has been deeply involved in the community aspects of music making. Chief among those is music education, which she has embraced enthusiastically. She’s been working with the Kaufman Center’s Face the Music, an orchestral program for kids aged 12-18, and invited participants to accompany her for the last few songs. Conductor Eleanore Oppenheim had a confident bearing in front of her ensemble. Cellist Toma Jackson, violinist Donnie Denham, and pianist Tristan Hu stood out for their contributions, and the proceedings were nicely held together by drummer Gabe Barrios.
Although Negrón’s primary composition teachers were Pedro da Silva and Tania León, she owes an obvious debt to John Cage. Chance is clearly welcome in her work, but more essential is Negrón’s attitude. Cage famously described the composition and performance of his music as “purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play.” In that spirit, Negrón is not ashamed to show that she is having fun. That sense of fun is contagious among those she works with. The final movement, “Evaporated,” brought everyone onstage, tugging and squeezing and poking at every botanical instrument at once, with Negrón as conductor. Their shared glances and giggles proved that they were having a blast.
This performance was part of the Kaufman’s Artist as Curator series, meant to explore the creative relationship between sound and sight. Next up, on Feb. 8, experimental musicians Travis Andrews and Andy Myerson, performing as The Living Earth Show, will play a live version of their album Music for Hard Times in collaboration with visual artist Jon Fischer.