Review: It can be a thin line between the musical avant-garde and aimless sound

The sentiment “this isn’t really music” is a common utterance in debates about new and challenging musical forms and an equally common response is, “That’s what they said about jazz!”

It is certainly true that the advent of jazz created controversy and commotion among the musical elites of the time period. But it was a controversy that stemmed from the manner in which jazz musicians threw out conventional rules with regards to modulation, extended chord voicings, compound meter and other fixtures of traditional music theory in favor of new and deeply satisfying compositional innovations. That was essentially a discussion about old techniques versus new techniques.

Such a discussion is impossible to have with regards to the abstract sound created by Bent Frequency, Georgia State University’s ensemble-in-residence, at the Florence Kopleff Recital Hall Sunday during an afternoon of avant-garde music. The ensemble has some lofty goals that they unfortunately struggled to reach, owing largely to overly experimental compositions that were more focused on creating sounds than musical developments.

The afternoon opened well enough: Bent Frequency Co-Artistic Director Jan Berry Baker performed “Five by Three,” a work for solo saxophone by Astrid Hubbard Flynn. The piece does showcase some legitimate musical concepts with a strong, rhythmically and melodically viable motif and bluesy passages that recalled Ornette Coleman at his most listener-friendly. It was a promising opener but it was also the afternoon’s only truly commendable work.

It was followed by “Nothing Motorised,” a trio piece featuring Bent Frequency Co-Artistic Director Stuart Gerber on percussion along with Adelaide Federici on violin and Tim Fitzgerald on clarinet. The piece can simply be described as a series of long, sustained notes on the various instruments. Because the work lacked any melodic direction or structural coherence, it was difficult to follow it through to any logical conclusion. This sort of sound-as-abstract-art approach to music could serve as the soundtrack to particularly tense scenes in a film about psychological breakdown or supernatural horrors, but as a standalone piece it drifted by without leaving much of an impression.

Things didn’t improve when Tim Fitzgerald took the stage for a solo performance of “Repetition Fable” by Marguerite Brown. The work proved to be a series of barely audible, slow moving atonal phrases played at the absolute lowest end of the instrument’s register. Once again it was an aimless, vague tableau of sound and one that was often drowned out by the ambient noise of people in the audience quietly coughing, crumpling paper and shifting in their seats.

“REEL” by Kyle Rivera saw Jan Berry Baker return with pianist Erika Tazawa. There was hope for a musical redemption in the opening strains — Tazawa did some cool tricks, reaching into the piano and plucking the strings. It created the aura of a sitar or shamisen being used to play an Eastern interpretation of musique concrete. But the appealing novelty was short-lived. The piece quickly escalated into random and furious noise, with Tazawa banging on the piano with her whole hands and eventually her arms.

The last two works of the afternoon—”Vitrales” by Pablo Rubino Lindner and “Music of What Happens” by Tim Feeney—were both large-ensemble works but neither were benefited by the increased stage presence. The latter piece in particular had the instrumentalists do very little actual playing at all. Instead they created a series of sound effects on their instruments before eventually — and seemingly at random — deciding to stop.

I like to champion musical risk taking, and I do not enjoy giving bad reviews. I have always prided myself on being able to find the value in all forms of music—from death metal to hip-hop, opera to country, I consider it my duty to convey to the reader the inherent value of all musical art forms. It is a duty borne out of my love of music as a whole, regardless of the genre.

Yes, Bent Frequency threw out the rule book Sunday, there’s no doubt about that. But the real question is what did they replace it with? Sadly, nothing left much of an impression.


Jordan Owen began writing about music professionally at the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate from the Berklee College of Music, he is a professional guitarist, bandleader and composer. He is currently the lead guitarist for the jazz group Other Strangers, the power metal band Axis of Empires and the melodic death/thrash metal band Century Spawn.

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