Meditations on Music: Splinter Reeds Concert

Sometimes I am left speechless after concerts. Sometimes I am left wanting to write infinite words. Usually it is a healthy median. In the case of the concert by Splinter Reeds, a reed quintet from the Bay Area, it was the second scenario. As I began this column less than an hour after the end of the performance, I could already feel my thoughts getting ahead of themselves, wanting to spill out onto the page in pure poeticism while I was doing my best to knead and sculpt the ensemble’s dense and diverse sonic palette into cohesive sentences that hopefully come close to reflecting what I heard and felt. It is an exciting process, but each moment is fleeting and buzzes in and out of mind, making capturing them difficult. After doing my best to preserve these thoughts by means of an initial few sentences, I can go back to my review now, having digested the concert a bit more a few days after the concert.

This was a unique concert for me to attend. As much as I enjoy most contemporary composed music I am shown, I am not in that world—the world so many of my friends are deeply immersed in—and I feel like there is no way for me to catch up. By going to concerts like these, I feel like I am trying to enter a world I need more background in, but the only way to get that background is to listen. It’s a strange paradox and while I am usually a bit nervous, albeit excited, I pretty much always leave these concerts fulfilled and with a renewed interest. Seeing Splinter Reeds in Harper Hall on Wednesday, Oct. 19, did exactly that.

It is rare for me to be so engaged throughout a whole program of composed music—there was little to no improvisation—but the conviction that each of the five musicians had playing five very different compositions was powerful as they gave it their all, electrifying and personalizing the notations in front of them. A definite highlight of the program was “3 Songs, 3 Interludes,” composed by their friend Erik Deluca. The piece, which incorporated ambient noise from the quintet’s phones in glasses and vocals in addition to their typical instrumentation, explored themes of love and relationships in a poetic and melancholic way. Deluca also pulled from a diverse palette of styles and compositional techniques, blending dreamy instrumental harmonies with repetitive and simple singing, artfully blurring the lines between playing through an instrument and expressing sentiments vocally. From the instrumental to the vocal, “3 Songs, 3 Interludes” never failed to resonate as a purely human piece, rich with emotion.

While this selection was hands down my favorite and a favorite among several other attendees, a lot of the enjoyment and engagement of the program came from how drastically different the other compositions were. This could be expected, as five different composers were featured, but Splinter Reeds tastefully created a program that brought forth their talents and backgrounds as individuals and an ensemble.

The opener, “Pinched” by Ryan Brown, was a tour de force in layered, bouncy activity, robustly moving forward. As light, rounded notes from the higher three voices flashed like neurons on top, the lower bassoon and bass clarinet interjected with heavy phrases, pulling at the already quivering yet strong main theme. The greatly contrasting “Auditory Scene Analysis II” by Eric Wubbels let the quintet dive into the extremes of their instruments, showcasing the sounds most would deem as “ugly” or “abrasive,” but by focusing on them, Wubbels and Splinter Reeds produced an alluring sonic illusion—much of the acoustic sounds created sounded electronically manipulated, defying the norms of the instruments playing them. Also included in the program was Matthew Shlomowitz’s “Line & Length,” a piece that was constantly spinning out of control and that altered how I listen to music. Shlomowitz, in his notes, shared that he composed the piece by use of “lines of various lengths,” and while this seems too simple—almost comical—it was hard not to take in everything played as minimally that.

Despite the differences each piece and composer had, Splinter Reeds brought the whole program together with exhilarating fervor. The final piece, “Splinter” by Marc Mellits, was a perfect closer, bringing together many of the elements previously heard in the program. Composed of eight short movements with each entitled after a tree, “Splinter” is a sonic exploration of the visual aspects each tree has, and while I could not quite conjure up all of the tree’s images during their respective movements, each transported me with a different soundscape, slowing or freezing time and meditating on the beauty of nature. Splinter Reeds put on quite a dense show that I am still digesting with repeated listens of their record “Got Stung” and deep thinking, and I am eager to further investigate the plethora of contemporary music I do not yet know.