The on-stage audience sat in six fairly tight rows with a musician at each of the corners of the square formed by the rows. Keyboard/synthesizer players Laura Berger and Ning Yu were placed catty-corner from percussionists Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg on tam-tam gong and steel thunder sheet. Some “overflow” audience members were seated in the regular hall, but the music was intended to be heard from within its geographical middle.
After the four musicians connected by eye contact to exactly synchronize their ‘phones, the piece began; sound emanated entirely slowly – it seemed like almost a minute before a steady something audible materialized from the steel sheet. The extent to which it might be considered ‘music’ remained unclear until the sound was joined, initially almost equally imperceptibly, by definitively musical synthesizer notes. Within the context of steady sound, passages of shifting intensity — ranging from pianissimo to mezzo forte, never louder – rose and fell in discrete, discernible rhythms. Over the course of the piece, the musicians at each corner took turns playing music; only occasionally did two musicians play at once, producing instrument overlaps of embrace, enhancement, mutual revelation and then separation. Mostly, however, the musicians floated their musical energies in each other’s directions like invisible shimmers through the audience’s fairly settled quiet.
Lamb demands a great deal of her audience, but her demands are not for brainy attention, as some composers’ are, but for trust. Just be with the music; let the music be in you. When Melissa Smey, Miller Theatre’s executive director, gave her brief opening welcome, she noted that one should respond to Lamb’s music as one responds to the commitment to meditation. She delivered Thomas Keating-esque words of encouragement: listen to the music, and if you find your mind wondering away from it, then ever so gently just return your mind to it. The soft electronic and gently metallic percussive sounds of this music might unkindly be interpreted as an esoteric soporific, but its invitation is to alertness rather than to unconsciousness. In curvo totalitas, Lamb is exploring not just washes of tone and comparisons of natural and human generated sound, but the very nature of subtlety itself: for Lamb, it is a form of plasticity, not just delicacy.
The overarching quiet of the piece was not improvised: the four Yarn/Wire musicians were following the structural dictates of a carefully worked out score. The feel of the performance was not so much of a traditional concert as of an aurally sensuous Quaker meeting: one experienced, in the end, refreshment, and, simultaneously, puzzlement about how this shifted internal state had been accomplished.
This lovely 45-minute single-piece ‘pop-up’ concert of Lamb’s music was a treat; it made one wish for more.
Yarn/Wire: Catherine Lamb, curvo totalitas (March 6, 2018)
Miller Theatre at Columbia University School of the Arts, 2960 Broadway at 116th Street, in Manhattan
Running time: 50 minutes