Monday, June 2, 2014

Fourth Wall Ensemble at the library: Hourlong, quick-change artistry in 'Fruit Flies Like a Banana,' plus a new work

From the firm foundation of the ever-ripening "Fruit Flies Like a Banana," the Fourth Wall Ensemble at Central Library put forward a new piece addressed to longer attention spans. It made a challenging companion to the whimsically titled variety show that was a hit for the trio at last summer's Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival.

Just as its "hybrid arts" innovations embrace dance, theater, and music, its programming ranges over the head-spinning variety of "Fruit Flies," with the clock counting off an hour into which Fourth Wall tries to pack as many audience-selected repertoire items as possible.  And, in this instance, it ends with  the 25-minute "Cinquillamente," a piece written for the flute-trombone-percussion trio by Dominican composer Jose Guillermo Puello.

You rarely get straight-up music-making from the Fourth Wall.
It's always a thrill to hear new music, particularly for unconventional ensembles. There the resourcefulness of a composer is tested, and perhaps some avenue his or her imagination had not previously considered is the pathway to new vistas. "Cinquillamente" also places the musicians unconventionally.  They move in a reverse phased withdrawal from the back wall to, well, the Fourth Wall — as close to the audience as possible.

In the course of the work, each of the musicians is showcased at the front edge of the stage. But their rapport is sealed by pairings — especially of trombone and flute — across a wide expanse of stage. Sometimes the dynamic level is so soft as to make each of the wind instruments seem unrelated to its unlikely partner; the percussionist holds down several middle positions, acting as both a goad and a kind of mediator, on drums and mallet instruments.

The work immediately commanded the space of the Clowes Auditorium at Central Library with initial heavy blows on a large bass drum. The repeated booms resonantly defined the space to be filled, sometimes quite subtly, by the music that followed.

Spatial analogues were wide in terms of pitch as well: often flutist Hilary Abigana was tootling mercilessly on the piccolo, whose shrillness acquired a ghostly aura when set against the samba whistle the percussionist Greg Jukes wore about his neck. C. Neil Parsons' bass trombone was left both to represent the traditional nobility and ceremonial hauteur of his instrument, but also (especially when muted) a plaintive partner to the flutes.

I liked the compactness of the subdued ending. There was no lingering after the work's climactic moments in order to drive home the abiding separateness of the three musicians. Music of some older eras could afford to belabor its points as part of a shared aesthetic. The best postmodernism (if that's what we are still in the midst of) is impatient with underlining. Puello did not dawdle in wrapping up his trio ruminations over distance — in both its spatial and musical aspects.

All three musicians were facing the back wall, motionless, at the very end. What was left in our minds by such a restrained theatrical ending was a stream of strong memories of how they made fragile yet energetic forays into true partnership over the span of a work that had started with such a shattering call to attention.

The virtuosity and enthusiasm of "Fruit Flies Like a Banana" is always fun to see, though the format resembles a new genre: call it "hybrid-arts calisthenics." About two dozen pieces raced by within 60 minutes. On the traditional side, deft arrangements of three ("Menelaus," "Tired," and "Hands, Eyes, and Heart") of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Four Last Songs were tender and expressive. The song texts, by the English composer's wife, Ursula, were recited in advance by the musicians.

In contrast, the manic energy of "8 Track Mind," a medley of 1980s pop hits, and the risky whirling and leaping of the Russian Dance from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" never fail to amaze. Coordination among the three Fourth Wallers remains steady both physically and musically. And, as promised by the hidden half of the show's title, time indeed flies like an arrow.

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