The magic of in-person live music is often the most present after sound stops, when all that’s left is the hush of the room. That momentary sparkle happened right after the final notes of Sarah Hennies’ Clock Dies, performed by New York’s Talea Ensemble on August 23, wafted into the air of the DiMenna Center for Classical Music. Similar to knowing when a hug is over by some otherworldly instinct, the audience knew when to clap once the moment had faded into the ether—a few even rose to their feet as the ensemble and composer took four bows.
The concert was part of TIME:SPANS, which is a festival that celebrates 21st century music over the course of about two weeks. This year’s festival, which ran from August 12-29, showcased a characteristically broad range of contemporary music styles, from the electronic experimentations of Pamela Z to the complex, free sounds of Tyshawn Sorey to the haunted textures of Ash Fure. The concert on August 23 showcased music by composers Catherine Lamb, Hennies, and Oscar Bettison; Hennies and Bettison both premiered new works at the event.
Lamb’s parallaxis forma, composed in 2016, opened the concert, setting the evening’s entrancing mood. Lamb’s music often highlights the subtle transformations of sound throughout time, exploring ideas of perception and tone, and parallaxis forma was no different. The piece was a whisper that slowly expanded into a shout, until it snapped back to near silence; listening felt like blinking while looking up at a distant, bright light, dazed yet determined to see. Strings, winds, voice, and percussion all began to play at different times, but they eventually morphed into one, grainy texture. Talea and soprano Tony Arnold played the music with very little ornamentation—the quality of the sound and wavering tones themselves were at the fore rather than frilly virtuosity—and they often sounded ethereal, except for a few moments with intonation problems. At the end of the piece, a cloud of silence weighed down the room—no one was quite sure when the music had stopped. It felt like the perfect ending to a work whose very heart was questioning our perception of it.
Both Lamb and Hennies’s pieces created these trance-like states with very little ornamentation, but Bettison’s La Arqueología del Neón centered ensemble virtuosity. Strings shredded with muted electricity and percussion pulled out a hefty set of tools—it was the kind of piece that gave Talea the opportunity to show off their technical skills. But it was also the least engaging of the works, possibly because it felt out of place after listening to two pieces that transported the audience to another world. Listening to a show piece at the very end was like a crash landing back to Earth—and while the ensemble sounded great, and Bettison brought out every stop, the piece still felt like it was on the wrong program.
It was Hennies’s Clock Dies, a work that places the idea of circadian rhythm onto an ensemble of musicians, that clearly stole the show. The piece moved in big, blocky sections, each featuring different, off-kilter rhythmic motions that formed interlocking rhythmic patterns. Throughout the performance, Talea, and conductor James Baker, were obviously working hard to keep the complex music together, and they pulled it off. Eventually, the piece abandoned those crisp rhythms and expanded into something much more fluid, using the piano to transition into lucid, dreamy melodies that contrasted with those first angular phrases. The audience was sucked into every minute change, every inch of the piece.
This festival was one of the first contemporary classical festivals I’ve gotten to attend in a reopened New York, which gave it an extra-special spark. Each piece was well-served by live, in-person performance: Lamb’s subtleties became more obvious, Hennies’s stark rhythms and dynamic changes were more compelling, Bettison’s use of virtuosity felt more impressive when you could see the musicians’s hands in motion on stage. But even more so than listening to each sound carefully tumble out of each instrument, being in a room with other people was a pleasant memory come back to life—the kinetic moments of silence, the poorly placed coughs, the roaring applause, the chatter as the stage crew set up the stage between pieces. And that burst of pure joy at the end of Hennies’s premiere, a lightning bolt flicker of collective experience, held every bit of magic that makes live music so enticing.