NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND ‌ Don't Box Me In 

From totalitarian terror to musical boombox obscenities

Venue-hopping Friday evening was chilly business, but it was worth it. Two eclectic series, devoted to music less than a half-century old, got off to promising starts.

Who says you can't teach some of history's ugliest lessons via music? That's just what happened at the Charleston Symphony's "Out of the Box" series opener at the Charleston Music Hall. The new bag of multimedia and community outreach tricks they unveiled Friday bodes well for the CSO's quest for fresh audiences. The theme was "Behind the Iron Curtain — an Artist Tormented."

From early on, Dmitri Shostakovich walked a perilous artistic tightrope — struggling to balance his own creative integrity against brutal Soviet artistic repression under Stalin. And his tragic balancing act was forcefully driven home, both visually and sonically, in front of a large and refreshingly un-senior crowd.

Accompanying the music were narrations collected and delivered by students from the Academic Magnet High School: official denouncements of the composer, and Stalin's formulas for "proper" proletarian art. Visual reinforcement came in the form of student-generated video snippets, plus a chilling longer film from local artist and filmmaker Kevin Harrison that cut in and out at various points during the show.

Resident Conductor Scott Terrell and company delivered spirit and tight precision, plus plenty of heavy Russian pain and pathos. In the concerto, cello soloist James Holland's lyrical interpretation dripped desolate sadness — but seemed almost "pretty" in places compared to the near-violence I've heard from Russian cellists. But his refined approach worked well, leaving a palpable sense of collective grief hanging in the air when it was all over. The only glitches were an awkward moment or two in coordinating the various components — and the external noise I've already complained about at CMH, though it wasn't nearly as distracting this time.

Redux Contemporary Art Studio a few blocks away hosted the evening's second notable event. Nathan Koci's New Music Collective attracted a near-capacity crowd for their ear-opening program of more recent progressive music, entitled "Musical Objects." No room here for a laundry list of the seven works and 17 performers who realized them, but it included a grab-bag of ordinary, nonmusical items.

We heard a spooky musical saw and rustling coathangers. Then there was the assortment of books, CD cases, trash cans, etc. — used percussively in a striking early piece from avant-garde pioneer John Cage. Conventional instruments included the usual strings, vibes, oboe, sax, French horn, and even bass clarinet, among others. Much of the material was electronically enhanced, via ingenious micing or computer processing.

Stuff like this sorely challenges existing notions of how we define and perceive "real" music. Boring — or so I thought early on in Alvin Lucier's Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra, with its single player tinkling monotonously on a tiny metal triangle. But unprejudiced ears soon began tingling to a subtle array of tones and overtones you'd never expect from it, depending on how it's held or struck. The effect was downright hypnotic.

Another highlight was Jacob ter Veldhuis's Grab it!, for "ghettoblaster and horn." Obscenity-ridden vocal samples (rants from jailed convicts) blared from the boombox, offset by Koci's very fancy horn-playing. James Tenney's interactive In a Large Reverberant Space ended the event, with the audience wandering around the building as all the musicians spun their rhythmically free, yet tonally specific web of contemplative sound. Nobody left without the feeling that serious, mind-grabbing music still has someplace to go.


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