Spanning the spectralists
Dal niente shines light on modern classical's brainiest movement.

By Doyle Armbrust
Time Out Chicago
Published: June 2, 2010

Time Out Chicago
BLOOD, SWEAT AND TIERS Conductor Michael Lewanski, bottom left, says,
“The music we play is extremely demanding, stressful and technically challenging.”

Ensemble dal niente has made its mark in Chicago’s thriving new-music scene by refusing to retreat from even the gnarliest contemporary music while remaining unafraid to tackle the occasional pop tune. “We play Radiohead arrangements, music by crazy Italian hippies like Scelsi and Chicago Symphony composers in residence like [Augusta Read] Thomas and [Mark-Anthony] Turnage,” says ensemble conductor Michael Lewanski, who also leads DePaul University’s Chamber Orchestra and Contemporary Music Ensemble. The Ravenswood resident credits the twenty- to thirtysomething musicians’ energy and their lack of egos for digesting what he calls an “OMG-hard” repertoire. “Given that most of the music we play is extremely demanding, stressful and technically challenging, we really can’t do anything other than just be humble and have fun with it. I’d say the most frequently heard question at a dal niente rehearsal is, ‘Who screwed that up? Me or you?’”

Even with dal niente’s impressive roster of instrumentalists, it’s likely that this phrase was heard more than once in preparation for the Saturday 5 performance in the acoustically crystalline Gottlieb Hall at Merit School of Music. Anchoring the program is the brutal-yet-beautiful “Partiels,” excerpted from the cycle Les espaces acoustiques by spectralism granddaddy Gérard Grisey.

The ism forming the cornerstone of ensemble dal niente’s provocative season finale refers to sound spectra. The Grisey piece is based on computer analysis of the spectrum of a trombone’s low E. Intestine-disrupting outbursts from trombone/double bass/contrabass clarinet, woodwind multiphonics and microtonal string writing result in the finest sci-fi/horror-film soundtrack never used as such. Despite the somewhat illustrative moniker, “spectralism” was not a term worn comfortably by its originators. But dal niente founding composer Kirsten Broberg has embraced the spectral approach in her own works: “I am interested in drawing harmonic material from various spectra, such as an overtone series that I develop in a cycle,” Broberg says.

Yes, it’s very technical-sounding stuff; yet, unlike the preceding serialism that dominated the early part of the 20th century, spectralism is not a rigid system and employs harmonic language that many listeners find more approachable. Concertgoers are sure to warm to this as well as the athleticism in Philippe Hurel’s percussion and piano composition “Tombeau in memoriam Gérard Grisey,” written as an homage after Grisey’s untimely death at age 52 in 1998. Also included on the program are spectralist figurehead Tristan Murail (“Les Ruines circulaires”) and Grisey protégé Fabien Lévy (“Les deux ampoules d’un sablier peu à peu se comprennent”), but in true dal niente fashion, the decidedly nonspectralist composer Pierre Boulez is included on this “French Music” ticket with his “Dérive 1.”

The illustrious composer’s output can account for audiences streaming through the exits when it’s programmed in Chicago Symphony concerts. That popular reaction doesn’t faze ensemble violinist and new-music dynamo Austin Wulliman: “Playing under his baton in Lucerne, I realized there is a sensuality imbued in every detail of his music,” Wulliman says. “Boulez often creates intimidating structures, but for the uninitiated, ‘Dérive 1’ is an easy inroad as it is short in length and intimate in scope.”

Founded by Broberg in 2004 at Northwestern University, now in its second year as Columbia College’s unofficial ensemble in residence, dal niente defies the notion that new music is too esoteric, which keeps composers scribbling and ticket sales steadily increasing for the group. For maestro Lewanski, however, filling seats comes down to one simple promise: “It’s going to be badass.”

Ensemble dal niente plays Merit School of Music, Gottlieb Hall, Saturday 5.

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