Dayton Hare: Strange Beautiful Music and the mosaic of Detroit’s avant-garde
It has become something of a tradition for me to begin the year by writing about Strange Beautiful Music, an annual contemporary music marathon put on by the musicians’ collective New Music Detroit — and who am I to break with tradition?
Running now for 11 years, the Strange Beautiful concerts had their latest iteration over the weekend, and there’s as much to say about them as ever. This year the marathon was divided across two days and three different venues, presenting a genre-defying hodgepodge of performances. Friday saw the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and The Detroit Institute of Art play host to a variety of different sets, and Saturday saw 10 hours of music at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s The Cube. Due to the expansiveness of the events, I wasn’t able to catch the entire marathon (missing the Wright Museum sets on Friday), but what I did see proved to be an effective reminder of the cultural vibrancy of Southeast Michigan’s avant-garde music scene.
Friday evening’s sets in The DIA were intense and viscerally moving in a way that I haven’t encountered too many times in my life. The performance space was the Rivera Court, a spacious chamber in the center of the museum named after the painter of the famous “Detroit Industry” murals that adorn its walls, Diego Rivera. I arrived partway through a performance by the James Cornish Light Opera, a group of some 13 musicians and two dancers, who were performing a musical interpretation of the poem “I Come From There” by the late Mahmoud Darwish, a poet who has been called the national poet of Palestine. I later learned that the music and dancing were largely improvised, but by that time I was taken by the raw emotion of it. Making use of drones and a free sort of meter, the sonic space the musicians created was meditative and ritualistic, infused with the sort of aching melancholy familiar to those who have yearned for something unattainable. By the end, however, the music turned ferocious and terrifying, a clamour that filled the reverberant walls with a harrowing sound of apocalypse, a thunderous noise that left me shaken to the core. The best way I can describe the music is simply as essential (in the true sense of something being part of one’s essence) and somehow referential to a longing at the core of the human spirit.
After a brief interlude the next set went on, Marcus Elliot’s Beyond Rebellious Ensemble. Made up of a rotating cast of characters, this weekend’s version of the group played a set of tunes coming out of the avant garde jazz tradition. Elliot, as bandleader and conductor, provided a collection of melodies and structures beforehand, and during the performance would direct the feeling of the music and cue the ensemble as needed throughout, occasionally writing directions on a small whiteboard he would show to the group. Afterward he described this process as “conduction,” a term which he credited to the composer Butch Morris. The set itself was incredibly engaging — one man who sat to my right described it as “transcendent” — and incredibly varied. At some moments there were catchy head tunes I later found myself whistling, and at other times there were wild, raucous explosions of sound or ethereal squeals that offered a new perspective on the sorts of sound an ensemble like that could produce.
Saturday featured around 10 hours of performances at the DSO. As one might expect, these ranged widely in style, tone and genre, varied in such a way that nothing ever seemed to grow stale. As one also might expect, I won’t touch on everything that happened during the 10 hours, but I do feel like it’s important to mention a few of the performances that I found to be the most meaningful.
One of the more conventional groups to perform on Saturday was the Detroit Composers’ Project, a collective formed by composer Harriet Steinke (who was a peer of mine a couple summers ago at a music program in Paris) to promote the work of Michigan-based composers. When I say conventional, it’s important not to think of it as a pejorative; I say “conventional” only insofar as it refers to what you tend to find at “contemporary classical” concerts, which is to say classical musicians performing notated music on classical instruments. The project already premiered a number of compositions earlier this month, at the DIA, and it was a delight for those of us who weren’t able to attend the first show for them to present a set at Strange Beautiful Music. The group played a variety of compositions, each with its own personality, and by the end one was left with a good impression of the diversity of music being made contemporary classical scene today.
This impression of musical diversity was only augmented as the day went on. Another group stemming from the classical tradition was the University’s own Contemporary Directions Ensemble, which presented a stunning program of works from three living women composers, Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Angélica Negrón and Julia Wolfe. The Thorvaldsdottir in particular was wonderful and spacious, enveloping the listener in a meditative sound-world until, near the end, a beautiful melody appeared, breaking through the music like sunlight through clouds. Set in contrast to the Wolfe, which was thrillingly energetic, the piece made quite a lasting impression.
Throughout the rest of the day audience members heard from groups like the freewheeling and noisey group ONO, the “sono-cybernetic exoskeleton”-donning Synergistic Mythologies, the experimental band saajtak, the New Music Detroit collective itself — I could go on, but the point is that there wasn’t any one dominant idea at the marathon. It was a wild, wacky amalgamation of all of the vaguely out-there music being made around Detroit, and a beautiful reflection of the artistic diversity of the city. Strange Beautiful Music continues to be an invaluable platform for the avant-garde, the weird and the unclassifiable, and one of the highlights of the year.