The 2014 MATA Festival of New Music shot out of the gate with a performance at the Kitchen by Uusinta, a sometimes 12-member new music ensemble from Finland making its American debut. By the end of the evening—six pieces that included New York, U.S., and world premieres—it was clear that debut was overdue. Uusinta’s versatility and virtuosic playing make an exceptionally persuasive argument for new music.
Presented under the rubric Between Noise and Silence, the program opened with [IVflbclVIvln/c] (2011) by Joan Arnau Pàmies, an exploration of chance and indeterminacy that asked the performers—on clarinet, cello, flute, and violin—to make their own interpretive choices from the score. For this listener the work proved as elusive as its title, but with the second piece, Sampo Haapamäki’s Connection (2007) for string quartet, Uusinta’s virtues were on full display. An enthralling quarter hour, Connection proceeds through narrative blocks that combine nerve-tightening crescendos with vertiginous plunges, yet the discernible pulse the players sustained through all these twists and turns created a cinematic, moment-to-moment tension.
Ilari Kaila’s Kellojen Kumarrus (2006), a piano quintet written in memory of a pianist who died young, veered back toward the quieter end of the spectrum. As affecting as the performance was, I found the next piece, Aaron Helgeson’s A Place Toward Other Places (2012) for solo clarinet, even more poignant. The air of votive concentration Lauri Sallinen brought to the work, along with his seeming ability to suspend and shape phrases in midair after he’d played them, gave it a soliloquy-like sense of interior life.
Wind instruments also had a prominent role in Alexander Khubeev’s Sounds of the Dark Time (2011), inspired, the program notes informed us, by the 2000 Lars von Trier movie Dancer in the Dark. Mention of von Trier’s name had me worried we were in for a bout of pure aural sadism; the surprise was that the tortured groans, raspberries, and worse that Khubeev elicited from the woodwinds—played without mouthpieces—cohered into a convincing musical language.
Appropriately, Uusinta saved its showstopper for the finale: Hikari Kiyama’s Jōruri Death Metal (2014), a world premiere MATA commission said to combine strains from Japanese folk and theatrical tradition with—yes, death metal. You’d need to be more familiar with Japanese music than I am to have discerned those influences in the work, but with regard to metal, Kiyama seems less interested in evoking a specific sound associated with head-banging than with an overall this-one-goes-to-11 attitude. Within just a few bars Uusinta placed us inside a maelstrom that incorporated toy xylophones, a siren, and even a handful of screams; at one point second violinist Teija Kivinen scraped a chair across the floor, which evoked fond memories of a similar ploy by the Velvet Underground, way back when.
The din conjured by Jōruri Death Metal was spectacular, but I’m not sure the work had anywhere left to go past the three-quarter mark. Succinctness had been a notable virtue of all five of the evening’s previous pieces, whereas here diminishing returns set in a few minutes before the musicians hurled themselves across the finish line. Still, even in these final moments, conductor Joszef Hars’s kinetic, increasingly uninhibited body language, which almost served as a visual guide to the cacophony, became its own source of interest.
Hars’s action hero turn was a fitting exclamation point to an exhilarating show—one last demonstration of what completely committed readings the ensemble gave these six pieces. MATA means “kill” in Spanish, and it’s not too much to say that on this night at the Kitchen, to use the old showbiz idiom, Uusinta killed it.
JEFF TOMPKINS is a writer and artist living in Brooklyn.