Two nights ago, on Thursday, February 4th, 2016, I attended Columbia's Miller Theatre's Composer Portraits. It was their first show of the season, and it featured composer Ashley Fure's work (pronounced "fury"), played by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), conducted by David Fulmer. Last season, I heard Anna Clyne's work performed at Miller (an event I rather enjoyed), so I thought it'd be a good idea to check out what else they had to offer.
Fure was born in 1982, studied at Oberlin, did her graduate work at Harvard, attended courses at IRCAM, and now works at Columbia and is Assistant Professor at Dartmouth. Her oeuvre utilizes instruments to make unconventional sounds: instead of playing notes, the instrumentalists might bow across the bridge or scrape the inside of the piano, or blow around a reed or mouthpiece instead of into it. Imagine an entire orchestra creating such sounds, all of it organized and highly imaginative, and yet largely incomprehensible to the average listener or music fan.
Some people say music is organized sound. Going by that definition, her work certainly fits the description. David Fulmer kept meticulous time to the various beatings and scrapings and writhing and stomping on stage (there was one point where the entire orchestra was stamping its feet and shifting them back and forth instead of touching their instruments; at another point, they all touched palms - at which point, someone in the audience laughed out loud).
Fure gave a brief interview after the intermission, and explained that her work explores how sound is made through the haptic experience - how the interweaving of physical events cause sound as a byproduct. Despite her pleasant presence and intelligent conversation, the audience seemed polarized: on one hand were her devoted fans who seemed to worship her as a genius and roared and applauded profusely and gave her a standing ovation; on the other hand were those who felt cheated, who thought they had come to listen to music and instead got an hour and a half of scraping and stomping (and who half-heartedly clapped or did not clap at all).
The last piece of the night, Etudes from the Anthropocene, was a "distillation, in proscenium form, of a full-scale, immersive installation opera" currently being developed. One of the two singers featured in the piece was Lucy Dhegrae, who perfomed Jason Eckardt's Dithyramb in 2014 and who now runs the Resonant Bodies Festival, an annual showcase of contemporary vocal music. But instead of singing in the traditional sense, the two singers both held megaphones into which they breathed, heaved, and sighed for fifteen minutes while four instrumentalists on stage plucked, strummed, or blew into their instruments in every way other than the one that actually makes notes.
Fure's music is beyond atonal - it's anotal - if that is a term. I understand and enjoy the unconventional sounds it creates for the listener, because for me, those sounds are meditative - listening to the movement and physical intention that drives musicians instead of the music itself. The only parts that jarred my ear were the high pitched scratches and screeches occasionally created by the unconventional "playing," and when the piano was being scraped on its inside, the piano-lover in me wanted to intervene and stop the carnage.
But this is music of the moment. Or...organized sound.
Personally, I think music should have notes, or at least some notes, in order to truly be called music; because music is about so much more than just "organized sound" - it's about tone, timbre, beauty, melody, texture, rhythm, performance, expression, personality, acoustics. But above all, I think music is about beauty. And when notes, which are the byproducts of trained musicians' performance work, are strung together in a way that their aggregate is greater than their isolated elements, they have the power to intoxicate us and affect us emotionally, or suspend us in time. Ultimately, however, musicians train for decades on their instruments to learn how to express notes - they don't go to Conservatory or audition for an orchestra by swishing their feet on the ground or half-blowing into their reeds, even if Fure's work is incredibly imaginative and complex. Alternatively, perhaps only a well-trained musician who has spent ten years honing her skills would have the ability perform this kind of elaborate avant-garde work.
Because opera is close to my heart, I bristle at the thought that a piece of performance art without the least bit of singing could be taken seriously as opera. Furthermore, anything that offends the ear, like screeching or scratching, should be left out of music - otherwise, it's quite literally unlistenable! However, one must give credit to Ashley Fure's inventive spirit and meticulous complexity, even if it is a complexity that many may be unable to understand or rightfully appreciate. I found her concert enjoyable, meditative, thought-provoking and singularly unique, but unfortunately, there were some people in attendance who were unprepared for her level of individuality and musical vanguard.
In all, I appreciated the show. I would patronize her concerts again, and I gained something from the experience of this young composer coming into her own in the traditionally male-dominated field of composition.