by Levi Dayan
image taken from Eli Stine's video "through a fragile traverse"
[originally published February 2021]
The conservatory’s TIMARA faculty recital program continued recently with a performance by Eli Stine, a teacher in the TIMARA program and an alumnus of the conservatory, alongside bassoon player Dana Jessen, an educator with the conservatory who has performed with orchestra lead by Anthony Braxton and Ingrid Laubrock, among others. The performance consisted of five pieces spanning several different mediums: “Vestigial Wings” (2018), a piece for video and multi-channel sound composed by Stine; “Copiale Interlude” (2019), a piece for bassoon and fixed electronics by Jessen; “of an implacable subtraction” (2014/15), a piece for bassoon and fixed electronics by Paula Matthusen; “Where Water Meets Memory” (2020/21), a five-part piece for multi-channel sound including strings, glockenspiel, and a choir, also composed by Stine; and finally “Through a Fragile Traverse,” a piece for bassoon and fixed electronics composed and performed by Jessen with a video accompaniment created by Stine. These five pieces were performed in immediate succession with one another, with no breaks and no applause until the very end of the performance.
The five pieces each covered a wide array of stylistic ground while staying unified in their exploration of dynamics and sound. Stine’s pieces called to mind the recent Steamroom recordings of Jim O’Rourke in their usage of shimmering electronics, field recordings, and string instruments that would often build dramatically before abruptly cutting out. At points on the five-part “When Water Meets Memory,” the sounds would jump from speaker to speaker at a lightning pace, an effect made even more visceral by the fact that the piece was the only one not accompanied by visuals, or a live performance from Jessen. Jessen’s performances were sparser but similar to Stine’s in their usage of dynamics; Jessen utilized the full range of her instrument, whether it be resonant low-end drones or sounds at the very upper range that sounded as much like a violin as a bassoon. Perhaps most impressive was her usage of breath, particularly during the last piece “Through a Fragile Traverse.” Jessen would sometimes make gasping and shouting sounds into her instrument, making it feel as though it was one with her own voice. At one point, she put down her bassoon and started blowing into different shapes she made with hand, creating a range of sounds that made me think she was holding a tiny instrument.
I first became exposed to both of these musicians through their collaboration on a piece composed by the great George Lewis titled “Seismologic,” which was included on a recording of his work titled “The Recombinant Trilogy” released just last year. Relistening to the piece while writing this, its usage of dynamics and spastic channel shifting was definitely call to mind the performance I had seen a few nights prior. Jessen’s bassoon-playing ranged from menacing, guttural grows to squelching, squealing lines, which were then frantically manipulated by Stine’s electronic treatments that made it feel as though the piece was dancing in my head. I had no idea at the time that the piece was recorded at Oberlin, nor that its performers were both involved with the Conservatory, and I continued to be unaware until just a few days ago when my friend, Sam informed me of the recital. The peculiar position of being someone who is obsessed with experimental/New Music/whatever you want to call it, while also not being able to read a note of music–and feeling very disconnected from the Conservatory–leads to a lot of surprises. I feel like some Oberlin students, who may feel as though they’ve exiled themselves from “culture” and “society,” are unaware of the rich musical history that Oberlin has facilitated over the years. Avant-garde music in particular has flourished at Oberlin, thanks in part to the TIMARA program and the way it made electronic experimentation more accessible to its students in a manner that, at the time of its founding, was as radical as any kind of musical institution could be. Stine and Jessen’s performance was a reminder that these sorts of insular music communities are just as important in expanding the vocabulary and possibility of music as any of the more recognized cultural hubs in the country.