The third installment of Spoleto Festival’s Music in Time series was a portrait of composer Nathan Davis, featuring five recent pieces. Davis was omnipresent — onstage, backstage, as a performer and host, introducing a piece one moment, running the electronic processing from behind the audience the next.
His music is gentle and colorful, sensitive to timbre and space and strangely ambient, even when it gets in your face. I guess one could call it spectral minimalism, what with the sparse gestures, looped repetitive phrases, Arvo Part-like bell echoes and overtone harmonic textures. But that wouldn’t do it justice, as the composer has found a way to sound like himself. Inspired by various phenomena and diverse in sound sources, his music offers an observant and intelligent commentary yet sounds fresh and comfortable.
Technology was present in most of the program. The composer is at ease using new media, and the way electronically generated sounds mingled with acoustic ones was organic and seamless.
The opening piece, “Bells,” was about communication. A contemporary take on church bells, this work depended on the cellphones of audience members to help create the sonic texture. I was more interested in the lush, slowly changing sonic environment that surrounded the audience. Percussionists processed around while tinkering with triangles and crotales. Onstage, tuned gongs and crotales, bowed and struck, fed through ring modulators. Three woodwinds played long, high-register tones, and recorded sounds added to the sonic environment.
Ryan Wilkins gave an extraordinary performance of “On speaking a hundred names” for bassoon and live processing (mostly reverb, delay and detuning processes), a piece that explored alternate fingerings and multiphonics, delivered with flawless control, dynamic range and expression.
“Crawlspace,” a multimedia piece exploring the unnoticed side of technology, was performed by the composer, who amplified the internal hum, buzz and crackle of a laptop.
Mr. Davis’ string quartet “Skrzyp Skzryn,” a light, gesture-based piece closed the program. With no soloistic writing, the four players generated clouds of almost identical material sometimes together, sometimes misaligned, exploring harmonics, tremolos, long glissandi, left-hand pizzicati and string-crossing arpeggios.
Writing for string quartet is always daunting for a composer, with Beethoven, Bartok and Carter always looking over his shoulder, and while not a groundbreaking work, “Skrzyp Skzryn” was successful. It was an idiomatic work, personal and consistent with the composer’s aesthetics and identity.
Yiorgos Vassilandonakis is a composer and professor of music at the College of Charleston.
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