I attended the Music with a View series this past Saturday at The Flea Theater and left thinking: “I could use a lot more of this in my life.” Even though I dwell in the city that never sleeps, too often do I find myself somnambulant in the shadow of daily routine, blind to the gems of life constantly happening all around this town. Thankfully, seeing Music with a View woke me up. It was one of those unexpected but rewarding New York experiences—like suddenly stopping to soak up a few songs of a street musician or witnessing the fireflies blinking their hellos in the park at twilight—that reminds me actually to live in this city every now and again.
Music with a View, a downtown festival that provides both emerging and established composers with a platform for presenting their works-in-progress, offers a balanced atmosphere of informality and professionalism: the artists, curator, and staff are serious about what they do without taking themselves too seriously, and for an audience, this too-rare attitude is always a relief.
The Flea is a fitting venue for such a festival. It’s housed in an old, intimate space with animated wooden floors that creak and sigh, but its acoustics are rewarding and its lighting system sufficient. These sometimes-contradictory characteristics combine here to provide a space in which audiences can relax while remaining confident that they’re about to witness some quality art.
Twelve different performances, each highlighting two or three artists, make up the festival. Last Saturday night’s featured composers were Svjetlana Bukvich and Molly Joyce, two accomplished artists with a penchant for telling stories through music. While Bukvich and Joyce are quite different stylistically, they are similar both in the emphasis they place on narrative composition and in how they seamlessly blend acoustic and electronic sounds to achieve what Bukvich calls “a sonic experience.” Her epithet is a good one. It’s not enough to dissect Bukvich’s and Joyce’s compositions in search of complex rhythmic patterns or tight harmonies, for, while these do exist, the compositions aren’t meant to serve them. What Bukvich and Joyce achieve best with their music—and what I do believe they set out to achieve—is a clear visceral reaction from the listener that roots her in the very human story that is the inspiration for such full and quality sound.
Stories of trial and triumph lie at the heart of Bukvich’s and Joyce’s compositions and might, along with both composers’ implementation of electronic and acoustic sound, account for why curator Kathleen Supové paired these artists particularly. As I listened to Bukvich’s first piece, “Sabih’s Dream,” a work inspired by the term “jezditi,” which, in Bukvich’s mother tongue, means “to touch the stars on a horse,” I was moved by the haunting chords Bukvich played on the analog synth, accompanied by the talented Patti Kilroy on the amplified violin. They left in me a distinct impression of the Gothic, like glimpsing Miss Havisham in her wedding dress. Drumming underneath the cavernous chords throughout much of the composition, however, was an almost joyous Balkan beat. A counterpart to the darker tones of the violin and synth, it served as a constant reminder that sorrow and exhilaration are equal parts of life, never far from one another.
Originally from Sarajevo, Bukvich’s early career was impacted by the violence of war. A musical scholarship to study in the U.S. was her ticket out, but her music remains rooted in her origins. In “Back to the Heart-Planet,” the seeds of which Bukvich planted in Sarajevo at the onset of war, there is an unmistakable old-world wisdom that resounds in the powerfully intuitive choral voices that dominate the piece. But with Bukvich’s upbeat, syncopated rhythm on the synth accompanying the voices, there is also an exuberant lightness to challenge the gravity and instill her sound with hope. As I watched her solemnly play the synth and vocalize in near-whispers at different points in her composition, she looked to be worshipping at an altar of music, honoring her history and the stories of her countrymen.
Molly Joyce’s “Toy Cathedrals,” a piece she wrote for her best friend, the highly skilled bassoonist Midori Samson, is just as wise in its structural and narrative composition. A prodigious, 20-year old talent from Pittsburgh who now attends Juilliard, Joyce’s sound evokes a maturity suggestive of a musician and storyteller much older and more experienced. Listening to the varied melodic lines played solely by Samson on bassoon and to the accompanying electronic sounds comprised of toy and cathedral organs, I was reminded of the human soul’s epochal journey through life. At different moments, the music awakened within me sensations of sadness, excitement, determination, wonder, anxiety, joy—there is great feeling in the sound, which transmits directly to the listener. Through her unpredictable shifts of rhythm, tone, and dynamics, Joyce addresses the uncertainty of life as well as its enormous potential.
Joyce enjoys writing for her musician friends, and because she has them in mind while composing, it is natural that they would inspire narrative. But the emotion and story behind the piece arise from its technical aspects, too. When she and Samson were working on developing the piece, Samson says, they “messed around with changing the dynamics of the electronics” so that she “could be heard and could hide. With bassoon, it’s hard to project, and, really, that’s what the piece is about.” So the technical aspects of the bassoon itself also inspired the narrative. As a young composer, Joyce already understands the importance of both form and content, and this will serve her well in what looks to be a very promising career.
Music with a View
The Flea Theater
41 White Street
One remaining performance, 3 p.m. Sunday, May, 27, with Robert Honstein