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 the unique soundscape Mincek created. 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 on various-sized guiros and a ratchet, as the 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 fright). Keeping meticulous time, the four players shifted between a multitude of sound-combinations and rhythms, creating a zigzag of syncopation. Suddenly, the music would change, 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 on 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 seemed to be borne out of the unusual and 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" (Alex 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, since many of the extremely subtle nuances could not be seen or readily 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 - and the Mivos Quartet did their job well.
After intermission, Alex Mincek sat in for a brief interview about his work. He came off light-hearted, intelligent, and even 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, and so he needs his collaborators to really be open to the exploration process. He said, "Most musicians expect the composer to actually know what they're doing," which got a robust laugh out of 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 into the unknown with the piece and 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 such excellent musicians as 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 was my favorite piece of the night, as it made extensive use of the kinds of musical elements I happen to love: tone, harmony, sensitivity, drama. 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 musical and lovely, that one could shut her eyes and let the ears drink in the many timbres, vibrations, and notes swimming in their own deep ocean all around the hall. Towards the end of the piece, 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, and this of course, led to a subversive vein running through the whole piece: that so much entangled, organized beauty and variation could also just as easily be suddenly quite..."off." Of all the pieces of the night, this one was the most akin to what I would think of as a water-color painting, with various hues and lines melding softly into and out of each other, leaving one with a blissfully hazy picture, and yet a very solid 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, and the string players all 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.
He describes his work as "creating a painting with sound," creating a sense of contour. You may not come away from Alex Mincek's music with a distinct fragment of it stuck in your memory, because there is no melodic ingredient to latch onto - but you will experience a devoted world unto itself, that wrestles with its own boundaries and potential, excites itself and you in the process, and then playfully ceases.
Keep this one on your radar.