The black-box theater at EMPAC was dark except for the track lights running up either side of the room. A fugue of sampled drum fills, cut-and-paste chords, and disembodied voices panned in the house speakers. The haunting phrase, “The past does not influence me. I influence it,” was barely audible above the din. Percussionist and composer Tyshawn Sorey appeared in golden light at a baby grand piano intoned a single bass note and let it resonate before tamping it abruptly and rattling off a dissonant string of notes. After nearly 10 minutes of intensely focused improvisation, Sorey rose from the piano and cracked his knuckles with an impish grin.
The multi-instrumentalist’s solo set (the first of the three this night) continued with an experiment in the visceral effects of high and low frequencies. He paralyzed the crowd with icy cymbal rushes created by scouring a drum stick around the circumference of his cymbal. By letting the pitch naturally decay, the corporeal tension was slowly eased. Then Sorey sat at a full drum kit, at times lapsing into laconic silences. He began modestly, sketching a few rhythmic ideas until a prerecorded arbitration hearing concerning the dissolution of a marriage came over the house speakers. What followed was a rhythmic translation of the conversation conducted in both English and German.
Saxophonist Colin Stetson, who has gained recognition of late for his solo work and collaborations with Bon Iver and Tom Waits, rattled ribcages with the intro to his latest LP, New History Warfare V. 2: Judges, “Awake on Foreign Shores.” Fitted with multiple contact microphones on his saxophone and his body, employing circular breathing, and vocalizing through his horn, Stetson resembled a steam engine generating sheets of sound. Even though Stetson’s almost mutant (in the X-Men sense of the word) ability was the main attraction, it was his sense of melody and composition that shined. On songs like “A Dream of Water,” which is accompanied with a spoken word track by Laurie Anderson on Judges, Stetson shifted the mood from hopeful to sinister by modifying one note in the continuous arpeggio or smearing the entire pattern up a half step with a gust of air.
Stage banter and song titles came at a premium that night, but Stetson delivered both with an air of excitability and lightheadedness. Before introducing a new composition titled “High Above the Great Green Sea,” he took the time to thank the EMPAC staff for escorting him around the building, “as it is like the Death Star.” The circular portals on the main concert hall and the lightning fast elevator definitely give it away.
Perhaps best known for her work with arena-rocking Arcade Fire, Sarah Neufeld performed solo material on violin. Using a technique similar to fiddle players, Neufeld created continuous sound and manipulated dynamic swells with the stroke of the bow.
After seeing three musicians at peak potency perform solo material, one cannot help but wonder what would have been had they played a piece together. EMPAC, RPI, and the crowd should be thankful they did not. If they had, they might have blown up the Death Star with sine waves.