Last night, Thursday February 25, 2016, I attended Columbia's Miller Theatre Composer Portrait concert of New York-based musician, Alex Mincek. Born in Florida in 1975, he moved to New York to study saxophone at the Manhattan School of Music, and later earned his master's degree in composition there. He completed his studies at the doctoral level at Columbia University, and has been active as a composer and performer, forming his own contemporary ensemble, Wet Ink. Mincek's unique musical style was born of jazz, New York minimalism, and European noise-art influences.
The first half of the show played Mincek's Pendulum VI: Trigger for piano four hands and two percussionists (2010). Yarn/Wire, a New-York based percussion and piano quartet, for whom the work was originally commissioned, performed the piece, and brought an intoxicating energy to Mincek’s unique soundscape. His music is devoid of melody but rich in timbre, utilizing a huge range of percussion possibilities. This piece started with scraping sounds: the percussionists playing various-sized guiros and a ratchet, as pianists plucked and scraped their instruments' strings with their own nails and/or credit cards (which of course, though imaginative, made the piano-lover in me gasp in unease). Keeping meticulous time, the four players shifted between a multitude of sound-combinations and rhythms, creating a zigzag of syncopation. Suddenly, the music changes, introducing new textures and dropping whatever came before. An immense, gong-induced crescendo hailed the coming of vibraphone and cow bells, before the piece ended in the same way it began ten minutes prior.
The second piece, String Quartet No. 3 "lift-tilt- filter-split" (2010) was performed by the acclaimed contemporary string ensemble, the Mivos Quartet. According to Mincek, the twenty-minute piece explores "the number of ways one might act upon objects to experience them in different ways and perhaps learn more about them." The composer used "successions of variously dynamic textures to represent complex interactions as they relate to shape and movement." The players would alternate between unusual ways of playing their instruments, such as bowing across the bridge, or fast, light strokes over muted strings, and articulating chords with intervals measured in quarter-tones and eighth-tones in lightning fast or sustained, maverick progressions. Thus, a network of musical and sound textures was borne out of the unpredictable but strangely meditative creation: "One of the things I find most interesting about these textures is their ability to absorb repetitions within networks of difference. For example, many sections in the work are constructed so that the composite rhythm from one phrase to the next is nearly identical, as is the timbre, pitch and register content. However, the distribution of these parameters is in constant flux. The result is music that is both always the same and always different, depending on how the listener chooses to follow the material" (Mincek, program notes.)
The piece ended with an abrupt crescendo ascending out of furious bowing over muted strings, and left the audience with a sense of finalized anticipation. It was playful, statement-making, and musically assertive, and should really be experienced at least once, for this unique, often highly unusual kind of music requires live performance in order to be more wholly appreciated. Many of the extremely subtle nuances would not be seen or easily heard on a standard video or recording. Also, the energy brought by the musicians to this type of composition is vital to its success—think of it as containing highly combustible material. Mivos Quartet did their job well.
After intermission, Mincek sat for a brief interview about his work. He was light-hearted, intelligent, and humble. He said that collaborating with musicians is extremely important for the kind of work he does because he asks people to take risks and do things with their body and musicianship that they may not normally do. He needs his collaborators to really be open to the exploration process: ”Most musicians expect the composer to actually know what they're doing.” This elicited a robust laugh from the audience. But he explained that what he means by this statement is that his music is constantly pushing to find its own boundaries, so he needs collaborators who are willing to go on that exploratory journey with him until a breaking point is met, exceeded, and tamed. This process means that the composer himself doesn't always "know" the outcome, or how exactly "it" will sound. But as I witnessed last night, the end result when working with excellent musicians like the Mivos Quartet and Yarn/Wire turns out to unquestionably be art.
The second half of the show gave us two world premiers: Images of Duration (In homage to Ellsworth Kelly) for piano and percussion quartet (2015-16) and Torrent for octet (2016), Miller Theatre commission. Images of Duration made extensive use of tone, harmony, and dramatic sensitivity. Written in five movements with names like "Points on a Colored Spiral" and "Oxblood becomes Orchid," it organized its sound world into clearly delineated themes: stacking staccato (vertical elements), intense solos (horizontal elements), entanglement of vertical and horizontal elements, color and tone utilizing piano, crotales, vibraphone, and marimba. The interplay of these instruments was so soothingly lovely that one could shut the eyes and let the ears drink in the many timbres, vibrations, and notes swimming in their own deep ocean all through the hall. Towards the end, the second pianist switched between normally tuned and detuned instruments in order to degrade the harmonies upon or around which so much had been built. This created a subversive vein through the whole piece as so much entangled, organized variation and beauty suddenly turned slightly "off." Like a water-color painting, Images of Duration melded various hues and lines softly into and out of each other, leaving behind both a blissfully hazy picture and an unmistakable impression.
Torrent, the final piece of the night, lasted 15 minutes and utilized the forces of both quartets. The second piano was still tuned down a quarter-tone, but the string players tuned their bottom strings down a sixth in order to create a completely new sound. Cycles of repetition and dynamics flowed forth, with the string quartet often playing very close to the fingerboard and using quarter-tone and eight-tone tuning. Eventually, a large clamor of sound erupted—the torrent preceded by chimes, divergent pulse rates, and high registers in the strings.
Mincek describes his work as "creating a painting with sound," creating a sense of “contour.” Because there is no melodic ingredient to latch onto, you may not come away from his music with a distinct fragment stuck in your mind. But you will experience a devoted world unto itself that wrestles with its own potential, excites you in the process, and playfully ceases.
Keep Alex Mincek on your radar.