Ear Taxi Festival 2021, presented by New Music Chicago, is a city-wide celebration of contemporary and experimental music. Now in its second iteration after launching in 2016, this year’s festival focuses on the theme “HEAR CHICAGO”, featuring music written primarily by Chicago-based composers for the purpose of “[elevate] Chicago as an internationally recognized center for extraordinary musical and cultural innovation. Boasting a roster of nearly 600 artists through its Spotlight and Mainstage concerts, Ear Taxi 2021 is bound to have something for everyone.
I chose to attend a block of three 45 minute concerts on Friday at the DePaul Art Museum. This space, accommodating about two dozen spectators, provided an appropriate intimate setting for soloists and chamber groups, and the low rumble of the L trains passing the window often complemented the punchy character of some of the music.
The first concert featured violinist Sarah Plum and began with a piece for solo violin by Tonia Ko titled Move and stay (2018). Written for scordatura violin, the piece featured an array of fragmentary eruptions, high overtones and double stops, framed by long pizzicato passages. The second on the program was Blooming dandelion (2020) by Kyong Mee Choi for solo violin and electronics. The electronic recording, played over a Bluetooth speaker, provided an otherworldly backdrop of ringing bells and other sounds, around which the violin weaved. The expanded color palette and greater differentiation from larger textures made it the most compelling piece in their program.
A dark and intense duet with cellist Nick Photinos called Abscondity (2011) by Sidney Corbett followed. Plum concluded the program with Olive cotton (2009) by Osnat Netzer — another parade of extended violin techniques. A notorious advocate of new music, Sarah Plum performed this stimulating program with technical mastery and commitment, although one wouldn’t die hearing these tracks anytime soon. Yet they certainly lived up to Ear Taxi Festival curatorial director Michael Lewanski’s claim that “Chicago music is irregular, improvised, incomplete, improbable.”
After a quick reset, Ogni Suono spoke up. The duo, composed of saxophonists Noa Even and Phil Pierick, presented two tracks from their 2018 album SaxoVoce, which explores the synthetic pathways of the saxophone and the human voice. The first work was a so-called “mini-opera” by David Reminick titled Walk after midnight (2017). The piece begins with the duet alternating between played and sung notes of a disjointed, syncopated melody. After this striking exhibition, the actors alternate between the roles of singer and accompanist, telling the story of a boy who befriends a benevolent ghost as a sleepwalker. The pair displayed pleasing singing vocals, especially Phil Pierick, who had devilishly high lines. However, there were times when the vocals could have been more assertive to make the wandering melodies more meaningful and to match their precise and confident saxophone playing.
Written for two soprano saxophones and song without lyrics, Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Chroma was an amorphous contemplation on color. Emily Koh’s microtonal / tv / path (2021) for baritone and tenor saxophone, was voiceless but too similar in its amorphous to Chroma to have a lot of impact, except for the loud mouth that bursts at the end.
After a lunch break, 5th Wave Collective took to the stage. Dedicated to “presenting works by female composers and gender nonconforming”, the ensemble is made up of violinists Carmen Abelson and Alexandra Hill, violist Roslyn Green and cellist Allie Chambers with 5th Wave artistic director Ashley Ertz , oboe and English horn.
They started with Bach-Éclats (2002) by Shulamit Ran, which is exactly as the name suggests. Written as an imaginary prelude to Contrapunctus X by The Art of the Fugue, the piece was a refreshing break from the atonality and nebulous soundscapes. Then there was an article by Ear Taxi founder Augusta Read Thomas titled Pilgrim soul (2011) for English horn and two violins. Taking its name from a line from William Butler Yeats’ poem “When You Are Old”, Pilgrim soul features three independent but interconnected voices, the melancholy accents of the English horn in the center. Ertz played with moving lyricism, while the violin playing could have been more precise in their intonation. Osnat Netzer made another release with the second movement of his String Quartet No.2, to recap (2007, rev. 2010), which presented beautiful and interesting harmonic progressions.
The ensemble took off in Clarice Assad Synchronous (2015). Here we finally have an example of what Lewanski calls in his curatorial statement the “mosaic identity” of 21st century music, where multiple languages and musical influences coalesce in ways that are both familiar and surprising.
Synchronous, which mixes elements of many styles, from medieval music to jazz, was the highlight of the whole afternoon. Unlike many previous works, Assad was not guilty of having lasted too long in one effect or texture and his music left one with dance melodies still spinning in his head. Of course, that’s not a prerequisite for good music, but it has proven that contemporary music can be both wildly inventive and melodically enjoyable at the same time.
The Ear Taxi Festival 2021 Mainstage series continues through Monday. Admission is free, open to the public and accessible via livestream. eartaxifestival.com
Posted in Uncategorized