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Carnal Node
Harman Center – Forum

Remaining Performances:
Saturday, July 26 @ 9:00 PM
Sunday, July 27 @ 3:00 PM

They say: “Sex, love, and lies in the internet age: what is it about technology that simultaneously brings us together and drives us apart? Where can lonely souls find love in this age? Great Noise Ensemble explores these ideas through the works of D.J. Sparr, Mark Mellits, and Ryan Brown.”

Brett’s take: Reading the blurb, you’re forgiven for not realizing this is primarily a musical performance. It consists of three pieces, of which the one entitled “Carnal Node” is the second. That titular piece is an operatic miniature, the story of a lonely man engaging in an Internet romance, sung by a soprano who “fills the dual roles of narrator and protagonist.” The first piece, “Thick Skin” is in an avant-garde jazz vein, while the final section, “Five Machines,” comprises a quintet of ‘musical machines’ (more on that in a moment).

Here is a sampling of the notes I jotted down during the performance, when I wasn’t too enraptured to do so: “Oddly triumphant,” “powerful,” “mashup artists,” “never lose grasp of a hook, head or melody even when way off-kilter,” “Beatles (Abbey Road) drum solo?,” “old woman in audience plugged ears,” “unpredictable,” “Gastr del Sol,” “surprisingly down-to-earth humor,” “Tubular Bells.”

This is modern composed music at its best; nimble, expressive, ear-turning and strange in an accessible way, highly virtuosic (7/4 time, anyone?) but never pretentious. “Thick Skin” is a good choice for an opener because it works in the most familiar forms: despite the odd time signatures and musical use of clothes hangers (yes, clothes hangers), the three movements recall jazz ballad, film score, march, even rock n’ roll (that Ringo Starr-on-bebop drum solo I noted). It’s fun, it’s beautiful.

The horn-dominant ensemble that plays “Thick Skin” switches for strings, percussion, piano, flute, and oboe for “Carnal Node.” Alternating between lyrical arias of email text and more plainspoken (and often hilariously pert) narration, soprano Kamala Sankaram takes the audience on an operatic journey that at once exalts one of the most common dramas of these modern times and almost explodes it to parody. (Note that the complete words to the piece are provided in the program.)

Finally, we get “Five Machines,” which, as the program describes, is constructed like a machine, in that “all the musicians fit together very closely… the parts themselves do not reveal [the] overall musical structure; only when combined does the musical architecture come forth.” Imagine a guitar strum followed by a piano key followed by a xylophone strike adding together to make a melody; or simultaneous single notes on bass, cello and baritone sax combining to form a chord. In my nascent understanding of the joys of avant-garde music, “Five Machines” recalls Steve Reich; but regardless of comparison, it is pulsing, surprising, at times evoking a delicate automaton, and at times something closer to a pounding war machine.

If the idea of avant-garde music (referred to by the Ensemble simply as ‘contemporary music’), or even 7/4 time, frighten you, consider this a chance to dip your toes in; you might find that it can match pop music for emotiveness, ambient techno for fragility, R&B for sheer fun. Even the performers are a joy to watch; the young ensemble is focused and clearly enjoying themselves. See www.greatnoiseensemble.com for more information and samples!

See it if: You’ve never seen anything with more risk – and possibility of reward – than a bar band.

Skip it if: You don’t go listen to music live unless you can already sing along to the CD.