After over a year of no performances due to COVID-19 restrictions, new music collective Ninth Planet returned on December 12, 2020 to live-stream a virtual concert of works by Angélica Negrón, Jessie Cox, inti figgis-vizueta, and Darian Donovan Thomas. Curated by ensemble flutist and artistic committee member Jessie Nucho, the program, titled On Being, “explores different aspects of our current existence—whether that is a physical relationship to a space or a more personal awareness of the self,” she said at the top of the program. Ninth Planet came to fruition in 2019 when two new music groups, Wild Rumpus and Composers, Inc., merged. Based in the Bay Area, the new music organization aims to perform, commission and further the works of young composers.
The program began with composer Angélica Negrón’s La Isla Mágica for pre-recorded electronics and double bass. The composition explores the relationship the composer has with two islands dear to her: Bali and Puerto Rico. With the electronics modulating softly, bassist Eugene Theriault began the piece with gently plucked notes. Later, he picked up the bow and glissandoed up and down the neck of his bass and eventually incorporated percussive taps on the wooden body of his instrument, as well as some vocalized notes. The emphasis on percussion and rhythm brought into prominence the bright, major-key melodic arpeggiations of the electronics, transporting listeners to a balmy landscape for a moment.
The second work, titled Spiritus, came from composer, music theorist and drummer Jessie Cox. Spiritus means “breath” in Latin, and the composition represents the ontological exploration of breath in relation to sound, particularly how breath warps the shape of sound and creates “shimmering” within itself. Naturally, it makes sense to channel this exploration of breath with the flute. Nucho herself performed this solo piece, filled with textured harmonics occasionally punctuated with a flurry of rapid notes. Harmonics rang out both in singular and polyphonic tones, and Nucho masterfully demonstrated the “shimmering” that Cox outlined through notes texturized by manipulations of her breath. In a seemingly impossible feat, two different pitches sounded simultaneously, with the lower note going up in scale chromatically and the higher note going down in scale chromatically. The fracturing of sound itself, along with the diverse range in timbre, creates a meditation on breath that is quite, well, breathtaking.
Form the Fabric, an ensemble work by composer inti figgis-vizueta, can be played with any number of musicians on any type of instrument. The score provides lots of gestures, with some indications of harmony, leaving the interpretation up to the performing musicians. No two performances of Form the Fabric are alike, forming a new “fabric” with each performance. According to figgis-vizueta, the phrase “Form the Fabric” derives from archaeologist Ramiro Mato’s description of the cosmological understandings of the Incan & Andean peoples. Mato describes the Inca Road as “threads interwoven to form the fabric of the physical and spiritual world,” and figgis-vizueta conjures an auditory representation of the connectivity between the physical and non-physical.
For this performance, the ensemble included Nucho on flute; Sophie Huet, clarinet; Brendan Lai-Tong, trombone; Giacomo Fiore, guitar; Margaret Halbig, piano; Mckenzie Langefeld, percussion; and Mia Nardi-Huffman, violin. One unexpected debut also took place: clarinetist Sophie Huet’s pet cat softly mewled throughout the piece. However, technical glitches punctured the magic of the performance, interrupting several truly magnificent swells that lost impact when the sound cut out. Despite the technical issues, the reverberations of each instrumentalist’s interpretation sang off each other in an ethereal glow.
[Editor’s note: Ninth Planet has since released a glitch-free recording of Form the Fabric, which can be viewed on their YouTube channel]
The program ended with Fluid by composer and violinist Darian Donovan Thomas, who explained that “meditating on the idea of a body of water interacting with vastly different civilizations over millennia” inspired this work for violin and pre-recorded electronics. Explicitly written about the Yanaguana river in San Antonio, Texas, the Payaya people gave the river its name, meaning “refreshing waters.” Performed by violinist Mia Nardi-Huffman, Fluid is a bubbling, stirring piece that washed over listeners and captured the fluidity of the blue gem of San Antonio.
Nucho’s curation, coupled with the talent of these composers and musicians, created a program aimed at dissecting various phenomenologies present in this moment. Poised at the liminal precipice of sound and space, the deconstruction of basic fundamentals of music—such as timbre, instrumentation and even the score itself—reflects the same examination we currently inflict on our minute human interactions. The alienation of screens, the longing for an ensemble to play together in the same room—we start to question why we feel so isolated when high-tech communication suggests otherwise. But when those very technologies disrupt the attempt at a communal musical experience, the gnawing doubts of these structures looms ever larger.
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