Meditations on Music: Decoda…

After several events in Appleton, at Lawrence and Björklunden, non-profit chamber collective Decoda played a diverse program this past Sunday, Jan. 8. The New York-based collective has 30 members performing in different instrumentations around the world, providing interactive and informative performances, often customized for their audiences. Sunday’s concert featured Decoda members James Austin Smith on oboe; Carol McGonnell on clarinet and Saeunn Thorsteinsdóttir on cello; as well as three Lawrence faculty who are members: Assistant Professor of Music Erin Lesser on flute, Associate Professor of Music Michael Mizrahi on piano and Instructor of Music Sumner Truax on saxophone.
I am going to go right out and say it: I find it difficult for me to go to instrumental concerts that lack improvisation or that are not jazz or avant-garde. It revolves around the same reasons that nearly every listener is guilty of—we like the comfort of something at least a little familiar, we feel we are too far behind to catch up on a new style, there is a gut feeling that we just do not resonate with it—the list is probably infinite. This issue is something I have been working on mostly through my column, but in other settings as well. Since an epiphany last term due to a choir concert, I feel like I have been on the right path, and I was genuinely excited for the Decoda concert even though I was not familiar with any of the program and had not listened to them before.
The performance began with a flute and clarinet duet, following its introduction—a short note about how to perceive sound. The two raw voices wove in and out of each other, a sparky momentum resting only with slight, occasional lulls. I engaged with this opener, but still felt a sense of disconnect with it and the following piece, a tranquil yet active flute-oboe-piano trio. In my notes, I wrote “pretty, but lacking context—why do I not need context for jazz and the like?” I am still mulling this question over, but what interested me most is that while I was not ultimately moved by it, I found the music to be beautiful, pleasing and engaging while listening deeply and writing down moments that stood out.
The next piece, “Mirrors” by Kaija Saariaho, a flute and cello duet, was the one that really started pulling me in. Both Lesser and Thorsteinsdóttir used unconventional sounds and techniques, making for a densely packed journey of timbres. I could feel Thorsteinsdóttir’s energy pouring through the cello, across the stage and up into my feet. I was physically resonating with the piece and resonated emotionally soon after too. This felt energy continued to the next piece, the oldest in the program, Robert Schumann’s “Fantasiestücke.” A three-movement duet with piano, the piece is usually played by one instrument and piano, but Decoda decided to divvy up the movements so their performance went from oboe d’amore to cello to clarinet. With “Fantasiestücke,” their acute focus on each other was shown, each playing off of the preceding musician with care, while also creating an individual statement.
The concert undoubtedly peaked for me at the first piece back from intermission, Daniel Bjarnason’s “5 Possibilities.” I cannot remember any musical gestures from it, so I am left just with how I felt during certain points. Never before had I heard a chamber piece that contained the urgency and intensity this piece brought forth. I was cleansed and at peace, but not in the same way I usually feel from a meditative piece. It was as if the music, once rattling in me, pushed everything unnecessary out, leaving only a vehement spirit. I have never been so moved by a chamber performance.
What mainly made this performance drastically difference for me was the unadulterated passion each musician had for not only making music but also sharing it with an audience. More often than not, I have trouble seeing the performers having a good time on stage during concerts that are outside of my usual taste. This may be because (a) my own preconceived notions affect my observations or (b) the performers are not having an enjoyable experience. I may be biased, but I have determined it is usually the latter. Being outward and honest with how you feel about the art one is creating can go a long way. In Decoda’s case, had I seen an identical program minus that passion, I firmly believe it would not have resonated with me at all.