Flux Quartet brings fresh sound to a young audience

by Christopher McMullen-Laird | 1/21/02 6:00am

It wasn't the regular crowd at the Flux Quartet's performance in Spaulding Auditorium Friday night. Even the few "progressive" white-haired listeners left during the intermission. The Flux -- violinists Tom Chiu and Jesse Mills, cellist Darret Adkins and Kenji Bunch on viola -- is young, its music is young and so is its audience.

The evening opened with a modern French composition by Renaud Gagneux, a piece in four movements that challenged the audience as much as the performers. The revolting opening chords stunned even the most imaginative listeners.

The first movement was a cacophonous puzzle played in the most offensive registers of the instruments -- it was shrill, it was boisterous and it was just in your face.

The remainder of the piece employed techniques unique to string instruments: icy harmonics, brutally plucked strings and the eerie sul ponticello technique of the final movement. Although they were a bit surprised, Flux's gratefully accepted the applause between the movements (the rule is usually to wait until the end of the piece, but I doubt that will hold in new music).

Michael Byron's "Awakening at the Inn of the Birds" was an odd mathematical game. It's the sort of piece composers never hear in public -- essentially written for other composers and theorists of new music. But since the Hopkins Center commissioned it, Flux played it in public.

These birds must have been dying to fiddle all night, or so the piece insinuated. And what an odd musical organization, with each voice employing a limited register within a single pitch set -- very academic.

Each voice demanded extraordinary conviction and endurance from the player. There were no breaks in any of the parts for 20 minutes -- a constant battle for priority. The independent lines were at times comic, then hyperactive and finally mesmerizing. Byron abandoned the exhausted listener, leaving nothing but dramatic silence at the end of the piece.

The second world premiere on the program, Ileana Velazquez's "Duendes alados" quartet, was also conservative for new music standards. Although more varied than the Byron, it still didn't stretch any boundaries or sound distinctly new.

The second movement was written in a sensual manner, one that is characteristic of 19th century writing. The thick texture was a bit of a surprise; one doesn't expect such crying and gasping from an electroacoustic music enthusiast.

The brittle pizzicato in the third movement often severed the melodic line into pieces. Valezquez actually created a traditional scherzo movement including moments when all four players were gaily plucking away at their strings.

The final movement, "Dance of the Late Night Revelers," was quite confusing. The light-footed dance soon slipped into an unbalanced rhythm and got the audience lost in the confusion.

After the two premieres, Flux finally played John Zorn's "Cat O' Nine Tails," no doubt the highlight of the program.

What Byron and Velazquez had ignored finally came to the forefront: the eternal imagination and enthusiasm that Flux has for humorous music. Zorn did set them up with some terrific juxtapositions on the page, but it was the drama in the performance that kept the listener (and viewer, in this case) engaged and amused.

Each sound bite was a small frame -- mostly inspired from cartoons -- which included the most bizarre demands: a pitter-patter section played entirely with the wood of the bow, the repulsive sound from bowing the string on the wrong side of the fingers, coughs and stomps, even Mills dropping his bow on the stage floor.

After a seductive "smoky-bar-room" passage, a sleepy audience member unconsciously sighed in perfect timing with the music, adding to the humor. Moments of perfect buffoonery and satire drew laughs from the audience -- a huge faux pas in most chamber music concerts. They smiled in ecstasy each time they could add theatrical flair to Zorn's comic score.

It takes a special group to attract and entertain the college crowd and Flux did it. If you came to have fun, you got it. If you came to get cultured, you didn't. Flux deserves a repeat engagement, perhaps with less premieres and more Zorn.