All these features of Welch’s music were on display last week during two bagpipe-focused evenings of his five day experimental residency at The Stone.
At the 10:00 show on Wednesday, December 9, Welch played bagpipes with Brendon Randall-Myers on electric guitar and Brian Chase on drums and electronics performing The Library of Babel, a 35 minute piece Welch composed in 1999. In a subsequent post-concert conversation, Welch indicated that the work of Jorge Luis Borges had been a foundational inspiration in his composing early in his career. This piece, titled to pay homage to Borges’ astonishing 1941 story of the same name, is an immediately recognizable child of Borges. It is also, however, strong enough to stand on its own, meaningful and effective, even for listeners unfamiliar with the works of the Argentinian writer.
The piece begins quietly and slowly with reverberated guitar notes and a low electronic pulse. These slowly intensify in volume and complexity, and by the time the bagpipe forcefully enters, musicians and audience alike have entered a big, complicated musical world. As the piping, guitar playing and drumming become increasingly intense, the music becomes an exemplar of the paradoxical Borgesian architecture of infinity. Circularity and linearity meet; ascent and descent can be experienced simultaneously; density becomes spaciousness. At the near-hypnotic center of the piece, as all three musicians play with fast, shared intensity and collaborative virtuosity, the controlled frenzy briefly transforms into something like stillness before the piece begins its gradual transition back to quiet and re-entrance into the regular world.
The 8:00 show on Thursday, December 10 was a more traditionally formal concert than either the 10:00 on Wednesday or the 10:00 performance later that same evening. Billed as Clocks in Motion plays the percussion works of Welch, the concert featured four Welch pieces.
This show was part of Clocks in Motion’s New York City debut. This virtuosic percussion group, an affiliate ensemble with the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, consists of four musicians – Sean Kleve, Dave Alcorn, Michael Koszewski and James McKenzie – all of whom have entirely mastered a wide-ranging vocabulary of instruments, world music styles and historical and contemporary percussion genres. These four musicians are composers and arrangers as well as daring performers. The first three pieces they performed were their arrangements of Welch pieces written between 2009 and 2012; the fourth piece, premiered on this evening, was written by Welch for the percussion quartet and bagpipe.
From one piece to the next, the Clocks in Motion musicians changed instruments. Having played the marimba, one percussionist might move to the vibraphone, while another, having started on glockenspiel might then move to xylophone; sometimes, someone would play a regular rock-n-roll drum kit. In the first three pieces, the arrangements of Welch’s compositions for bagpipe were fascinating and exciting: the audible presence of bagpipe tunes and traditions in percussion instruments was not merely a sweet magic feat but also a substantive exploration of transformation processes.
The fourth piece, “The Sound of the Waves Against the Castle of Duntoon,” featuring all five musicians together, made alternating water-and-shoreline movements of crash and calm completely visible in the mind of the listener. Water and waves – dominant images in the music of both Ireland, called up by the bagpipes, and Indonesia, evoked by the percussionists – are universal sources for human inspiration and subjects for works of art in all genres. In this evocative and witty piece, Welch added to the historical references of the British Isles and South East Asia the relatively recent twentieth century thump and sway of California surf rock.
In this concert, the four musicians of Clocks in Motion demonstrated a compelling artistic vision: their absolutely secure technical control, intellectual discipline and commitment to imaginative daring make them thrilling to listen to. All formally and rigorously trained, these percussionists are committed to both classical and contemporary music, but they also clearly relish challenging themselves to heady, edgy creativity and presenting themselves in performance with such openheartedness that they turn audiences into colleagues in exploring the new.
The 10:00 show on Thursday consisted of one single 35 minute piece of music, half written and half improvised, by its two performers, Matthew Welch on bagpipes and Brooklyn-based electronic musician Dan Friel on synthesizer. Each musician wrote two of the four melodies on which the piece was based.
Throughout the piece, Friel’s multifaceted, skillful and imaginative playing provided a richly textured continuous sound of modernity against which Welch’s piping explored centuries of bagpipe tradition. At moments, Welch’s playing would have fit in with the music of nineteenth century imperial military bands, traditional pastoral dance ensembles, New York City police funeral marchers and even the Twelve Pipers of the current Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Household. When, at those precise moments when Welch’s historical references were most clear, he would turn them on their heads, making his bagpipe do completely different things, as its sounds connected with Friel’s, in conversation, colloquy, competition and collaboration.
Dance and dirge, sensuous swooning, delicate rocking and roiling wildness all appeared in this piece; at its architectural center, the sheer density of sound invited both suspended introversion and quasi-psychedelic space-out. This piece represented the very best of what a residency such as Welch’s at The Stone is all about. This was a good and interesting piece, but it needs to be tightened, made a little leaner. With continued work, this piece will move from good to excellent.
Welch is an exciting artist. He inhabits the unexpected spaces that are created when divergent traditions are connected to each other. He discerns musical similarities and hears echoes across geography. He writes music that examines and reflects music-makers’ purposes and identities cross-culturally and trans-nationally, much as portrait-painters depict subjects looking at themselves in mirrors.
Welch is also interested in history. He examines how musical ideas once transmitted from generation to generation by oral tradition can be both recorded and preserved, and then used as a formal vocabulary to expand contemporary discourse.
In conversation and in what he writes about his work, Welch discusses “hybridizing world music.” What’s important about this project is that in creating new works and in affirming the excitement of forward-looking twenty-first century music, Welch is not blending, homogenizing or simplifying the vocabularies of divergent instruments, geographies and eras. Instead, he joins them so as to reveal those universalities of human experience that will continue on in the future.
Welch’s music is unexpected. It lives in a vibrant place that is formal and informal, cerebral and funky, demanding, exacting, tender, sentimental, grand and full of bravura, humble and down to earth. No wonder musicians of all sorts enjoy working with him. And, no doubt, as Welch continues to bring his many projects to fruition, bigger audiences will begin enjoying Welch’s first-rate music, too.
Matthew Welch Music: Three Residency Concerts (Dec. 9 and 10, 2015)
The Stone, Avenue C at 2nd Street, in Manhattan
Running times: December 9 at 10:00 p.m.: 35 minutes
December 10 at 8:00 p.m.: 48 minutes
December 10 at 10:00 p.m.: 41 minutes