Meditations on Music: Levels

“It felt natural and easy,” shared junior Sam Genualdi, guitarist of the chamber group Levels, speaking with me and the rest of the group the day after their first performance. The statement, while simple, really captured their first concert for me as well as the performers. Even at its most tense and chaotic moments, I felt extremely grounded and focused on the often meditative music. It did not feel difficult to do, as the five musicians and their music were honest and sincere.

Levels is a quintet based in improvisatory elements. Its five members—junior and guitarist Sam Genualdi, junior and trombonist Dominic Ellis, junior and percussionist Adam Friedman, junior and saxophonist Sam Pratt and senior and violist Kyle Stalsberg—originally came together to record part of Stalsberg’s graduate school audition pieces. After all being in the Improvisatory Group of Lawrence University (IGLU) and recording, the five decided to continue to work under the name Levels to create music composed by them and other Lawrence-related composers.

After a term of playing as a quintet, Levels released an extended play (EP) of their recordings and compositions thus far called “Distractions,” which gave the world outside of their group the first taste of what they were doing. With a reworking of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” and several improvised soundscapes based on memories of each member, the EP stands as an accurate representation of what Levels can do while also showing their momentum and direction as a group.

With the success of “Distractions” and the realization of a shared mindset, the five began to rehearse more and more. This term, they have been playing together five hours a week. While some of their goals are intangible—like leaving Lawrence as strong musicians and improvisors—they are also attempting to produce a full album, consisting of compositions by Lawrence students, alumni and faculty.

Their debut performance on April 20 showed their progress since the EP and gave the audience a look into what the album contains. However, the performance was much more than that, as I am sure others will agree. The concert provided a moving and powerful experience that left me nearly speechless, save for the minimal feelings and observations I wrote down in my notebook. Part of the reason I wrote so little down was because I was either overwhelmed with emotion or so at peace that I did not feel the need to share anything except for those feelings. Another reason for my lack of notes was that it was difficult to pull myself out of these states when I just wanted to sit with my eyes open or closed and listen.

For much of the concert, my eyes were gently closed and I was almost completely still while not feeling rigid. Later, I observed that this most likely happened because my body subconsciously turned everything off not related to listening or keeping me alive. The entire hour of the concert was one of the moments where I felt the closest that I have ever been to music, and feeling like my whole soul was that invested in it felt incredible. At points, it even felt like I was distinct from my body and the rest of the external world, something I do not believe I have ever observed in myself. At other points, I found myself naturally in a state of meditation. I almost always meditate alone in silence, but during much of this concert, I noticed I was relaxed with very few thoughts, often achieving this state with the music of Levels and their composers more easily than I would by myself.

My feelings and states were at the mercy of the musicians in front of me, but my own thoughts led me as well. In a passage in Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Nurse Ratchet releases a gas into the ward that changes to a plastic, filling up the building and slowing time to almost a stop—at least, this is how patient Chief Bromden perceives it.

Unlike Bromden’s experience, Levels’ performance was completely positive, but the feeling of plastic floating in the air, freezing time without stifling a feeling of freedom and openness resonated with me and stuck in my mind during parts of the concert. Levels naturally and easily provided this experience for me.

Their success of leading me into various states—which were some of the purest states of being—was mainly due to their connectedness as an ensemble. I noticed this connection within the first couple of minutes. While coming from different skill sets and having many different views on music, the five all had the same desire of improvising and playing together to promote unity within diversity and diversity within unity. They were also extremely invested in their music as a whole, each other’s compositions and their guest composer’s works.

The quintet’s closeness to the music and their devotion to share it with the audience so that each individual could experience what the group did was ultimately the most beautiful aspect of Levels’ debut performance.

You can find Levels’ “Distractions” and future releases at https://levelsnewmusic.bandcamp.com. Stay tuned for upcoming performances from any of the members.

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