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Unheard-of//Ensemble Plays the Birenbaum

By Orson Abram


Unheard-of//Ensemble, the Brooklyn-based contemporary classical music-based chamber ensemble — consisting of only a pianist, a violinist, a cellist (Oberlin alum Iva Casian-Lakoš), and a clarinetist — performed at the Birenbaum this past Friday.

Their performance, consisting only of the piece Fire Ecologies, composed by Montana-based and environment-focused composer Christopher Stark, combined manipulated film footage of nature and auditory electronics, ranging from gorgeous Ravel-esque piano-dominated textures to what can only be described as a Stravinsky-inspired hip-hop beat, into a cohesive and engrossing program. The piece, tackling climate change by focusing on an aspect of nature over 9 movements, lasted 55 minutes and never overstayed its welcome at any point. The ensemble, shaded with portable purple lights shining on them from below, did not necessarily perform as an accompaniment to the film, but instead played with it.

Stark’s piece consists of multiple movements and film scenes, each with a different “traditionally classical” composer and piece influence and a different sound and style. The films themselves often featured digital manipulations of animals such as deer and turtles, close-ups of water processes, and in the standout movement of the work, entitled “Infernal Dance,” influenced by Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, featured the same clip of burning wood on top of each other and being rhythmically intertwined with a hip-hop-adjacent beat driving the movement. Considering that most of the movements were based on melodic dissonances and the timelessness of the instruments weaving into each other texturally through the fascinating instrumentation, “Infernal Dance” was a particularly refreshing checkpoint in the piece. This is not to say that the rest of the performance was underwhelming; instead, it displays how incredibly versatile Stark is in his approaches.

Each movement provided a different musical and visual space, and the Birenbaum was completely transformed in every facet imaginable. Each performer of the ensemble was incredibly dynamic and virtuosic, and the music felt completely meticulous and wholly at ease simultaneously. Although Unheard-of//Ensemble’s time at Oberlin was less than a week, and this performance itself was less than an hour long, their incredible musicality and unorthodox use of multimedia in classical music will stick with me and many others for years to come.

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