Houston's fearless new music ensemble Loop38 kicks off their third season with “Behind the Scenes - Behind the Sounds,” a concert that explores the physical nature of music making with three pieces for ensemble and electronics: Maja Ratkje's "And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep" (2013); Lewis Nielson's "USW" (2009); and Ashley Fure's "Albatross" (2014).
According to pianist and co-founder Yvonne Chen, the concert is part of a more personal approach to programming. "This season is made up of passion projects from various people in the ensemble that reflect who we are as a whole," she explains, adding that the group placed a special emphasis on “finding new spaces for music” that juxtapose different communities and architecture.
The result? A spectrum of concerts planned in unconventional venues across the city. This season features works from George Lewis, Nicole Lizzee, Gabriel Kahane, Luciano Berio, and Morton Feldman performed in unorthodox places including Night Heron, Live Oaks Meeting House, and the Silos at Sawyer Yards.
For Wednesday’s opening concert at MATCH, the program features electro-acoustic works centered around audio samples of human bodies. The opening piece by Norwegian composer Maja Ratkje features recordings of her own vocals, which she integrates into the piece through sampling and imitation. It's not the conventional singing you'd expect, but rather extended vocal technique—visceral, unearthly sound effects she makes in her throat—which is imitated by the rest of the ensemble. Everything sounds stretched out, like it exists in slow-motion, and the electronic samples and live instruments blend in a way that makes it hard to determine where each begins and ends. "You think you know where a sound is coming from, but you don't," says double-bassist Austin Lewellen. "There will still be things that catch you, and that's the fun in it."
Second on the program is Nielson’s “USW,” which samples the human voice in a different sense. The “musical theatre,” as Nielson calls it, is centered around the life of Marxist theorist and activist Rosa Luxemburg. He intersperses clips of a female voice reading Luxemburg's texts among haunting tunes and an instrumental accompaniment that mimics industrial noise. "There's a great section where the clarinet and oboe alternate between extended techniques like flutter-tonguing and multiphonics to create this brutal, hemiola-filled ostinato that sounds quite literally like a machine," Lewellen explains.
At other points in the piece, you'll hear a hammer and file hitting steel and see the pianist plucking and scraping the strings of the piano. The music is repetitive but unpredictable, and instruments are stripped down to their physical components—wood and air and steel—to create an industrial world where fragments of music emerge and then dissipate.
The final piece is by Ashley Fure, a formidable composer who happens to be a former student of Lewis Nielson. In "Albatross," audio samples of live dancers create an environment where effort becomes audible: You hear the sound of breath, of skin, of pattering and stomping feet. It’s all about the effort involved in technical details—something instrumentalists spend their whole career trying to obscure.
Here, that elbow grease becomes the focus. It’s all rather theatrical, as the group will be wearing tennis shoes, scuffing their feet, throwing their heads back to make squeaking sounds, and trying to integrate themselves into the "live, local act of creation," as Fure described it. Like the Ratjke, the musicians will attempt to blur the difference between the electronic sounds and the live music, and it'll be up to the audience to differentiate between the two.
To be sure, the music isn't appealing in a sit-back-and-relax kind of way, but Loop38 wagers that just like experiencing any new work of art, the thrill lies in the unfamiliarity.
"We want to make people feel okay with being uncomfortable," Lewellen says. "The point isn't to get it or to know what's going on, but to feel confused, to be excited by what you don't know, and to want to figure it out more."
Behind the Scenes - Behind the Sounds, Nov. 14. Tickets $20. MATCH, 3400 Main St. 713-521-4533. More info and tickets at matchouston.org.