Last night at the Unitarian Universalist Church, Friction Quartet (violinists Kevin Rogers and Otis Harriel, violist Kallie Ciechomski, and cellist Douglas Machiz) presented their most recent program entitled Transmediation. According to the program book, the word “refers to the process through which individuals select and translate data to represent it in another media form.” This is not as innovative as one might think. The very act of performing most music involves the translation of physical marks on paper into an auditory experience, and the act of putting those marks on the paper tends to be the translation of some experience or aspiration in the life-world. Nevertheless, the title for the evening encouraged an approach to the performers as if they were a medium, sharing “family resemblance” with categories such as cinema and sculpture.
The program featured premiere performances of new works by three composers, Daniel Felsenfeld, Rafael Hernandez, and Noah Luna (in the order of presentation). Felsenfeld’s quartet consisted of four independent movements, each with a single word title: “You,” “Have,” “No,” and “Idea.” Felsenfeld’s note suggests that his motivation was to write a piece entitled “No;” but, taken in their ordering, the movements convert the individual words into a sentence.
This, in itself, involves translation from the lexical medium to the semantic. However, at least on “first contact,” one was more aware of the individuality of the movements, rather than their “implied synthesis.” Friction endowed each of the movements with its own rhetoric of energy and interplay among the four instruments. However, one sensed that there was more to this music than could be apprehended in a single listening experience. Friction’s spirited account made a case that subsequent performances should be in order.
In Hernandez’ approach the marks he was putting on the paper were apparently mediated by software of his own design. However, Friction gave the piece an expressive performance (again high on the energy content), which deftly concealed any sense that this music had “mechanical” origins. Since the title was simply “Movement for String Quartet,” one was entirely in the domain of abstraction. Thus, there was also a level of transmediation through which the performers endowed this abstraction with a coherent sense of expressiveness.
Far less abstract was Luna’s “The Highwayman,” inspired by a narrative poem of the same title written by Alfred Noyes in 1906. This was probably the most extensive act of transmediation on the program. Little remains of Noyes’ poem other than the plot line, the division into verses, and the basic rhyme scheme. Luna probably felt that the original was too singsong for a musical setting, and he worked with Australian novelist Thomas Woodward to cast the poem in a new metrical structure with word alterations to accommodate it. The result was a transmediated version of the narrative, now set for tenor voice and string quartet instrumentation.
The result was impressive but not necessarily compelling. One got the impression that tenor Brian Thorsett was still working on finding the appropriate musical shapes for Woodward’s new wording. It also seemed as if questions of balance between voice and instruments were still being resolved. Taken together, these factors would probably account for the uneven diction in Thorsett’s delivery; and this difficulty was not always sufficiently resolved by having the text printed in the program book. What suffered most was any sense that this was a swashbuckling tale driven forward at breakneck pace with what-happens-next urgency.
Two other composers were featured on the program. The evening began with Mark Ackerley’s “TKO,” a miniaturist study of physical athleticism given an impressive reading by Friction with all of the connotations of a sports victory. The first half of the program concluded with Erik DeLuca’s “Lake,” composed to be performed with a screening of an 8mm silent film made by Philip R. Gale at Isle Royal National Park, located in Lake Superior. If Ackerley’s quartet was a study in energy, than DeLuca’s was a study in stillness. There was no explicit sense of parallelism between film and music, but the quietude of each complemented the other. The result was definitely the most serene piece of the evening, likely to be just as effective as a strictly auditory experience as in its intended multimedia setting.