For years, new-music champion Bonnie Wright's Fresh Sound concert series has posed provocative, existential questions on the nature of sound, noise and music.
The Feb. 6 solo show by percussionist Ross Karre pushed those questions well beyond the theoretical and out into a landscape where discomfort and incredulity rubbed shoulders with a genuine sense of amazement and appreciation for the audacious sonic world one discovers on the road less traveled.
The first piece, "Chambers" by Alvin Lucier, actually played before the concert began. A transducer had been applied to the top of an industrial piece of equipment, giving off a sort of static ambiance that wafted in the noisy room. Then Karre appeared and sat down to deliver Fritz Hauser's "Schraffur," one of the most challenging pieces I've ever dealt with as a listener. Karre basically used a thin metal rod to scrape against the edge of a small gong for what might have been an eternity, making minute changes in timbre by lifting the gong ever so slowly while keeping the repetitive motion dangerously close to a textbook definition of ad nauseam. I remember being struck by the absolutely rapt attention of the audience -- the phrase "In for a penny, in for a pound" came to mind.
The rest of the program was infinitely less taxing. Lucier's "Opera With Objects" drew upon the sounds made by rods against tin cans, pie-tins and other kitchen utensils, and Mark Applebaum's "Composition Machine #1, Sec. I," dealt with inverted cymbals, gongs and the pendulum swing of a microphone. Most inspired was Vinko Globokar's "Dialog Uber Erde," which found the percussionist creating a whole world of textures with a half-filled aquarium, dipping a variety of bells into the amplified fluid and even pounding the outer walls with soft mallets for earthquake sounds.
Equally fascinating was Applebaum's "Composition Machine #1, Sec. II," for amplified table. Karre drummed with his fingertips like an impatient executive, then dragged cups, saucers and other accoutrements along the surface, ultimately tracing their shapes with a huge roller pin.
Karre also represented local composer Natacha Diels by performing her highly original (and whimsical) composition "An Economy of Means," which utilized a tiny, wired-up "dollhouse" drumset with lighted sticks, several glockenspiel bars and other small devices along with Karre's own voice. There was a heavy visual element involved, which may have detracted more than it added to the performance.
The evening ended with another Lucier piece in which small speakers with prerecorded sounds were deposited inside unusual objects like flower pots and a mannequin foot then placed in a small storage locker alongside purely visual props like a hardhat, which as far as I could tell, played no significant musical role.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.