Once you're buzzed inside the Center for New Music, it's almost surprising to walk in from one of the Tenderloin's less distinguished blocks to a well-proportioned and comfortable space. There was a sort of lounge off to the front, and a long concert space with clean white walls, backed with an irregular wall of bricks worn by time into beauty. During the intermission I noticed at least one woman walk back there just to put her hands on the brick. She told me she wanted to see if they were real.
The concert was an evening of new music by local composer Kyle Hovatter. I had never heard his elegant and inventive music before, but I had heard some of the performers: the Jarring Sounds duo (mezzo-soprano – oddly listed as a soprano in Friday's program – Danielle Reutter-Harrah and lutenist/guitarist/theorboist Adam Cockerham) and I was glad to hear some performers new to me, soprano Amy Foote, pianist Ian Scarfe, and bassoonist Alexis Luque. Hovatter worked the computer for pieces that used pre-recorded tracks, like the first piece, En Los Bosques, for bassoon and pre-recorded audio, inspired by a poem by Neruda ("Lost in the forest, I broke off a dark twig. . . "). The track was more interesting than such things often are, combining spoken word, natural sounds, and musical instruments, accompanied by Luque on bassoon, bringing out intimations of that instrument's Pieter Bruegel quality. That was followed by Plum Green, for bassoon and piano (Luque on bassoon and Ian Scarfe on piano). The idea here was to move from one color to the next; plum was more percussive and green more lyrical. Though the reference is to colors I couldn't help also thinking of green plums ripening, and natural scenes, particularly bird song, as well as poetry seem to inspire a lot of Hovatter's music, though that may make it sound more ethereal than it is; the earth and earthiness are also part of Nature.
Hovatter introduced the next selection, a setting of four poems by T E Hulme, a young critic turned poet and then killed in the trenches of World War I. The poems and the settings are brief, elliptical, and compelling. (The program's title, As a Fowl, is taken from one of these poems.) The Jarring Sounds duo performed these; I had heard them in baroque music so it was interesting to hear their other specialty, contemporary works; it's also interesting to hear modern works for the theorbo. While they were arranging stands and stools Cockerham gave a brief yet thorough explanation of what the theorbo was (a member of the lute family: see the rounded back) and why its neck is so long (it has extra strings for added bass, and string technology at the time required the length). I am not a big fan of concert-time chat but I actually found this sort of technical explanation really fascinating and helpful. There was an intermission after this piece, which was unnecessary, I thought, but the composer's wife had thoughtfully baked cookies and brownies for us, which I ate too many of, so I can't really complain.
After the break the first piece was There Will Come Soft Rains for soprano Amy Foote and pre-recorded track. It's a setting of the poem of that name by Sara Teasdale. In his intro Hovatter put the poem in a Cold War/post-atomic bomb setting, which was an interesting view, but it also relates to the Hulme poems we heard earlier, since she wrote it in response to the slaughter on the battlefields of World War I. He also mentioned working on this piece with Foote, and explained that it arose from their mutual love of birds, so instead of a linear setting of the text the words are broken and patterned like bird-song. Foote appropriately wore peacock-feather earrings. (I have to agree: bird-song is one of the wonders of the world, even the cawing of crows; conversely, is there a stupider, more annoying sound in Nature than a dog barking? Dogs are the car alarms of the animal world. This bit is prompted by the horrifying sight of several people actually walking their dogs in the Westfield Mall. What a nightmare that place can be.)
That was followed by the Jarring Sounds performing Azulao, a mournful Brazilian love song, with Cockerham on lute this time. It involves sending a bluebird as messenger to the speaker's "ungrateful love," so the bird theme continues. The finale brought all the performers (except the pianist, who only played the one piece) back on stage for Three Poems by Elinor Wylie. Hovatter opened the piece by saying he sort of identified with Wylie, in that she was also out of step with her time (which was 1885 to 1928) and maybe took herself a bit too seriously. It was kind of a funny and slightly alarming personal revelation. The three poems were the epigrammatic and anti-social The Eagle and the Mole (Hovatter's setting really brought out the poem, which can seem a bit too heavily end-stopped when read on its own), Atavism, another view of Nature, and a brief, caustic excerpt from Village Mystery. In these pieces I felt that Foote was a bit too loud for the space, and her voice sometimes pressed into glassiness, but on the whole it was another excellent performance. Really enjoyable evening. After the applause we ate more cookies.