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Experimental Music

Ensemble performs work of composer Keeril Makan
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Cellist Wendy Law at MIT Chapel.
Cellist Wendy Law at MIT Chapel.
L. Barry Hetherington

Performing the 2007 piece “Resonance Alloy,” percussionist David Shively bends down, his ear close to a hanging tam-tam gong, hands moving swiftly over a set of cymbals. All the audience hears is the methodical and material insistence of mallet upon metal, sound ricocheting off the floor and walls of the concert hall. At once feverish and deliberate, meditative and clangorous, the piece aims to remind the listener that sound is movement, and sound is energy, a physical fact exerting itself on the body and in space. In “Resonance Alloy,” the listener is inside sound, engulfed by it, lost in it.

The piece was written by Keeril Makan, an associate professor of music at MIT, with Shively in mind. Makan and Shively became friends at Oberlin College in the early 1990s, where they both studied music. “Every couple of years since 1990, we’ve done something together,” Shively says. They first met in a Middle Eastern ensemble, and Shively later performed an early graphic score of Makan’s involving two marimbas and two flutes. “We’ve grown up together musically,” Makan says. “If you can have this relationship in your life as a musician, it’s fantastic.”

Now, 20 years later, Shively is a visiting artist at MIT as part of the experimental chamber ensemble Either/Or, a group he co-founded and has directed with the composer Richard Carrick since 2004. The ensemble, which has expanded steadily over the past decade, consists of a rotating cast of 18 performers with far-ranging skills and interests. It has made its name, according to the New York Times, as “a trustworthy purveyor of fresh sounds.”

Either/Or’s curatorial mandate lies in charting out an alternative genealogy of classical music. “What would a canon look like if you said that your foundational pillars were, say, instead of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Boulez, what if it was Morton Feldman, La Monte Young, Luigi Nono, Giacinto Scelsi?” Shively asks, referencing an eclectic set of 20th-century avant-garde composers.

This spring at MIT, members of Either/Or — including Shively, Jennifer Choi, Wendy Law, Russell Greenberg, Taka Kigawa, and Dan Lippel — premiered Makan’s newest composition, “Letting Time Circle Through Us,” for violin, cello, piano, percussion, guitar, and cimbalom. At more than 45 minutes long, “Letting Time Circle Through Us” is one of Makan’s longest pieces yet. It’s also among his favorites. “There’s an emotional complexity to it that couldn’t have happened on a smaller scale,” Makan says. Because the piece is so long, he doubts it will be performed very often — making its premiere at MIT especially significant.

The piece, like “Resonance Alloy,” explores the relationships between order and chaos, predictability and chance, the linear and the cyclical. And like “Resonance Alloy,” the work plays with the listener’s experience of time, continually winding back to common refrains. It reflects Makan’s interest in Buddhist meditation, states of being that work toward a sustained focus and mindfulness, an openness to sonic experience.

“I’m drawn to the things that take you out of clock time in a way, and just define their own pace and their own scale,” Shively says. “And Keeril’s work really does that, especially in this case.”

Other inspirations of Shively’s include Transylvanian folk music, drone music, and extended field recordings — hypnotic sounds that either don’t immediately announce themselves as “music” or operate so repetitively that they deny any trace of intentionality. In such pieces, there are only varying degrees of intensity, mounting energies that build and ebb. In February, for example, Shively performed legendary composer Alvin Lucier’s 1988 triangle solo “Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra” at the MIT Chapel — a work of minimalism that has its performer repeatedly striking a metal triangle for 19 minutes, altering the speed and loudness to explore different acoustic properties.

“It all comes down to … the physical quality of sound in the space and things happening slowly over time,” Shively says. “[The music] is not aspiring to be language — it’s actually staying sound and working within that.” Although Makan’s compositions employ more of a narrative progression, his work is also highly attuned to the unique textures of sound, at times pushing the instrument to the edge.

In May, Either/Or will perform more pieces written by MIT composers — those of Makan’s undergraduate students. Having worked extensively with classes over the course of the semester through lectures and in-class demonstrations, Either/Or has expanded the students’ musical horizons while exposing them to the contemporary currents in new music. The performance will be a unique opportunity for students to hear their own work performed in public by masterful players. Visiting artists bring a fresh vocabulary to campus, Makan says, “and it’s inspiring for students to be around that and see what work is like at a professional level.”

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