The Red Desert ensemble, the duo project of clarinetist Katie Porter and composer/percussionist Devin Maxwell, organized one of the most interesting public jam session concerts to happen recently in Salt Lake City. Joining forces with numerous local musicians, Westminster College students, and University of Utah students from Radical Quiet, Phillip Bimstein’s honors college course about cultivating a heightened awareness through the arts and the practice of absorbed listening, the concert featured music by Maxwell, Morton Feldman, Pauline Oliveros and a fabulous all-star conglomeration performing Terry Riley’s In C masterpiece.
The perfect backdrop for the concert was Great Salt Lake and Vicinity, the installation artwork by Spencer Finch featuring more than 1,100 Pantone color swatches in the G. W. Anderson Family Great Hall of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. At the beginning of the concert, Maxwell encouraged audience members to move about freely to heighten their experience and connection to the music. Red Desert has a knack for setting up the right atmosphere.
Porter, Maxwell and student Indigo Cook opened with Morton Feldman’s Bass Clarinet and Percussion, composed in 1981 during the last few years of his life. Its ordinary name belies a fascinating music premise, which always marked Feldman’s works. While there are two instrumental parts, the percussion duties are divided between two players. Lasting roughly 20 minutes, the work is episodic and it inverts the conventional roles among the instrumentalists. The bass clarinet part is quite limited in its variety while the percussion parts offer a broader range of timbre and technique options. The percussion parts have all of the incisive energy while the bass clarinet seems to drift with an uncharacteristically nonchalant manner. Overall, the work is sparse, remote, and deceptive in its seemingly benign nature. But, it also allows the listener to be absorbed exclusively in the moment of its performance. It is as tension-free a musical experience as one possibly could be.
Extending the experience was Pauline Oliveros’ Bye Bye Butterfly, a fixed media electronics composition that essentially deconstructs a recording of Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s most popular classic. An interesting bit of trivia about Oliveros is that she was one of the performers in the 1964 premiere of Riley’s minimalist masterpiece that concluded this Red Desert ensemble concert.
Listening to Oliveros’ work, one is reminded just how out of place that famous Puccini opera really is in our contemporary age. Composed in 1904, the opera’s story is famous, as it takes place in Nagasaki. Butterfly, 15, comes from a family that once was wealthy but now survives by working as a geisha. She believes her arranged marriage to an American naval lieutenant is real, but in the revelation of the truth, her story ends in suicide. During World War II, American opera companies did not perform the work, concerned about the unflattering portrayal of the American in the story. Of course, once the war ended, opera companies resumed its performances. Oliveros reminds us just how difficult it can be to excise the romanticized rationalizations of an ethos and morality that is no longer tenable. It’s a fascinating piece.
The sonic palette became even more versatile with Maxwell’s PH8, composed last year, and part of an ongoing series involving various combinations of instrumentalists. This installment featured Porter on bass clarinet, Maxwell on marimba, and Jacob Rosenzweig on bass. This work capped the distinct contemplative tone that had been set throughout the concert’s first half.
Going for a clever segue, Cook led Fluxus, a whimsical countdown to the start of the Riley work as the musicians gathered and prepped themselves for the performance. Porter and Maxwell managed quite the assemblage for the Riley work: two voices (Tessa Scheuer and Cheryl Hart), six violins (Christian Asplund, Maya Miro Johnson, Gabe Gordon and Annie Kendall, Nain Christopherson and Kate MacLeod, who also doubled on voice), one cello (Halee Jean), two flutes (Madeline Burningham and Olivia Iachimciuc), one clarinet (Amy Gabbitas), one bass clarinet (Porter), one trombone (Steven Ricks, who also doubled on electronics), two synthesizers (Igor Iachimciuc and Kimi Kawashima) and four percussionists (Maxwell, Cook, Gavin Ryan and Andrew Barry). Also joining the ensemble were Connor Lockie and Rosenzweig.
As previously mentioned in The Utah Review, the work is “the global village’s first ritual symphonic piece,” as described by critic Janet Rotter. The performance emanated with that precise spirit. In C is based on a concept with stunningly deceptive simplicity. Each performer works from sheet music with the same set of 53 short musical phrases that range anywhere from a half-beat to 32 beats. As with any traditional musical composition, each performer begins on the first phrase repeating it an undetermined number of times before moving on to the second phrase and so on. The work has been rendered marvelously on a combination of electronically synthesized sounds and tones accompanied by electric and acoustic instruments, especially in a highly esteemed recording by the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble. The Red Desert performance grounded the work’s sprawling soundscape with a cavalcade of acoustic touches.
The concert also marks a forthcoming transition for Porter and Maxwell who will soon be leaving the Utah area to focus their energies on Red Desert, finish an album, secure new commissions and tour. They also will be hosting a symposium for experimental, improvised and electronic music at the Park City Library in July.