The Transitional Moment

N. Andrew Walsh,

“Is the Instrument treated like an Object, or is an Object treated like an Instrument?” Composer Malin Bång explains the Curious Chamber Players’ genesis as arising out of a desire to expand the sonic repertoire: to use more noises, more “non-instrumental” instruments, to extend the resources available to composers. We’re meeting in a pre-concert presentation given by the group at the ECLAT Festival in Stuttgart, and the directors are talking us through the group’s background in performing at the boundary between instrumental praxis and physical theater. Almost as if they were concerned for an audience accustomed to purely instrumental performance, they were the only group to give such a presentation, having prepared for the public a series of score and audio excerpts to explain the program and its significance.

The concert, titled as a whole “the changing moments in life,” is likewise premised on a state of transition: the composers were each asked to write about events in their lives that affected them, perhaps unnoticed in the moment but consequential for their ultimate identity. Bång’s own “jasmonate” begins with two large hourglasses, turned over and set running on amplified platforms flanking the stage. Thematically connected to the piece’s genesis responding to the inexorable threat of the climate crisis, their more immediate function is as sound sources: delicately hissing, gradually and subtly changing in timbre, the hourglasses set a baseline of white noise underpinning the performance.

This shimmering oscillation between ontological states―either as prop, staging, installation, sound-source, or thematic element―is characteristic of the Curious Chamber Players’ performance practice. Founded in 2003 by Malin Bång and Rei Munakata, the ensemble anchors its performances in intimate, personal experiences and an expansive approach to instrumental technique. Everyday objects, particularly those significant to the people playing them, is a founding principle of the ensemble; and it is this expanded instrumentarium that has attracted a diverse repertoire by primarily younger composers.

Noteworthy in this context, however, is that the six featured composers all eschew straightforwardly narrative exposition of their own biography or personal development, instead treating the moments thematically, their compositions operating on the axes of atmosphere and metaphor.

The performances, however, have the feeling of a rehearsal, of gestures not completely realized; and it is precisely this state of transitoriness that lies at the root of their incompleteness. To use objects, particularly ones of personal or thematic significance, approaches performance art; and this awareness of performativity is lacking. Wei-Chieh Lin’s “silenced.tumult” is “about” the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, and knowing this about the piece imbues the megaphones with a meaning they otherwise lack elsewhere in the program (it is noteworthy, despite all the pieces’ various backgrounds, that certain objects―megaphones electronic or paper, through which the performers yell or whisper, in particular―appear in several pieces), but the performers handle their megaphones with the same energy, the same mannerism, throughout.

Out of a discussion with one of my colleagues at the festival, who had interpreted the entire concert as a single narrative whole, I asked Bång about the thematic connections between pieces, or whether they had considered placing her piece at the front of the program, rather than at its end: doing so would have allowed the hourglasses to continue running throughout, elevating their presence above the thematic connection to her own piece, and becoming connective tissue unifying the entire program. She clarified that they had originally planned to do so, and that the hourglasses had, indeed, been considered in this light (and furthermore that “jasmonate” appeared in a condensed form, the complete version of which dealt with the hourglasses more thoroughly).

This is perhaps the reason why the performance practice they seek to create is not yet fully realized in the execution. Bång and her colleagues approach the objects they play as instruments, or vice-versa, regarding the transitional state they inhabit along the spectrum of sound-sources alone; but to use objects, particularly those with thematic meaning, demands of the performer an awareness of physicality: both in the performers’ bodies, and in the objects they use.

Rei Munakata’s “Puchan” employs temi baskets traditionally used to sort soybeans, and the professionals who use them toss the beans high into the air, so that the wind might blow the husks away from the rest. An evocative image, but wholly lacking in the performers’ shuffling of the baskets. The musicians merely drop soybeans into their baskets, or onto the floor; a more practiced performance artist would see the elegance of these gestures―extending the arm, unfurling the hand, letting the beans fall―as æsthetic in themselves. When I ask Munakata about this, he explains that the performance instructions in the score do, in fact, indicate different types of dropping or throwing, denote different moods, and that the ensemble watched videos of Japanese farmers using the temi, but that the exigencies of mounting the performance hadn’t allowed sufficient time to practice the movements. The actions, he and Bång both explain, are the means to create the sounds, not to explore performative gestures.

By the same token, performance art recognizes that the performers onstage are also people, that the space they inhabit is also a real one, and admits events outside of that space as part of the performance. During Timothy McCormack’s “The Hollow of the Heart,” a quasi-concerto for contrabass recorder and ensemble, there is a moment during a passage of long, sliding tones when an airplane, passing by overhead outside the concert space, is briefly audible. The airplane’s droning by fits the soundscape of the ensemble perfectly, which I realize would nevertheless likely be perceived by the ensemble and composer, and possibly the audience as well, as an intrusion. It would have been a more interesting, authentic performance if the interplay between those sorts of extra-diegetic events and the pieces being performed were given more breathing room. Here, too, the various dimensions of the performative act feel incomplete, not wholly realized. Perhaps with more time to inhabit the pieces―the dress rehearsal was tipped far more toward the logistical side than that of a final run-through: the placement of objects and microphones, choreography of the performers moving on stage―the concert would have felt less hectic, the gestures more coherent, the movements of the musicians less likely to cause unintended mishaps (musicians knocked over their props several times trying to navigate the stage, and a technician from the radio broadcaster rushed out among the musicians during the first piece to switch on an amplifier). Munakata argued that this was, in fact, a desired part of the performance, that their ensemble seeks to embrace the environment in which their performances take place—but in the execution this element is regrettably lacking.

There is enormous potential residing at the transition between instrumental, aurally focused musical performance and action-based performance art, and the Curious Chamber Players assert a compelling position for their ensemble’s æsthetic at the wavering not-quite-equilibrium between the two praxes. But without addressing both halves of the equation the execution remains incomplete, and the potential energy to be found in the tension between the two will remain only that: potential, not entirely brought to fruition.