Yes, we have no Endangered Bananas

I must say, it’s fun to walk into a concert hall with no expectations.

On Tuesday night, I entered Kilbourn Hall with my fashionable friend Carin, a notebook, and two kids: I told my children to sit wherever they wanted to and draw pictures. They hopped up to the back row.

We went to hear Ossia (pronounced “oh-SEE-ah”), the student contemporary music group based at the Eastman School with a time-honored tradition of omnivorous, unpredictable programming.

Before the concert began, stagehands placed two speakers on the floor in front of the closed curtains. The curtains never opened during the first piece, “Okanogan,” which tolled like ominous church bells as an unseen harpist (Amanda Evans) strummed and rattled her harp with a small, metal stick. The other musicians tapped, droned, and then broke into what sounded like a tribal dance. After the performance, I read that composer Giacinto Scelsi described this 1968 work as “a rite . . . the heartbeat of the earth.” After suffering a mental breakdown, he used to sit at the piano and play the same note over and over again. Ossia conveyed a spirit of intelligent madness. It resolved. I felt convinced.

The red curtains parted for the next piece, “Heart’s Ear,” which led us through mournful territory punctuated by the occasional piercing siren. A gelatinous mass, it shivered and jiggled until players began popping and lurching out of the ooze. I later read that the composer, Liza LIM (sic) finds inspiration in the writings of 13th century poet Jelaliddin Rumi. He described the intimacy musicians have with their instruments as erotic, a lover’s dance of subtle touches. I didn’t catch that in this performance, but “Heart’s Ear” had an organic quality that was well-expressed by all, especially flutist Haley Bangs and clarinetist Cheryl Hutchinson.

Reckless, funky, and virtuosic, “Viola Sketches” by Andrew Colella featured John Graham playing a skeletal electric viola connected by black cords to speakers and foot pedals. I had never seen an electric viola. Graham moshed his way from a grinding, heavy-metal sound into a yearning, vaguely Middle Eastern mode. I was astonished by the range of sounds he made. He cranked out violent, robotic rhythms. He dug in, stripped horsehair strands off his bow, and played on even more forcefully. Later his instrument broke out in bluesy laughter. “Viola Sketches” proves composer Andrew Colella has struck a rich vein. More from him, please.

The last work, “Endangered Banana #1: The Destroyer Seeks Itself” is based on the premise that the modern form of the banana may die off due to a disease. I’d never heard of this. If it’s true, why isn’t it general knowledge? Composer Robert Pierzak wrote the piece for 21 vocalists guided by 3 conductors, all of whom walked out in yellow, black, and green outfits. My friend Carin noted that fashion was an important part of the overall effect. The vocalists snapped, whispered, barked, yelled, sang, droned, and shushed at the beckoning of the conductors, creating a sonic version of Paul Klee’s Twittering Machine. At first, the effect had me on the edge of my seat. I expected to be taken somewhere in the way that Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” leads one to a glorious climax. But for me, that moment never arrived. The machine twittered on, the vocalists whooped and droned. After awhile, I settled back into my seat.

After the concert, my children bounced down from the back of the hall and pronounced the whole thing “weird” and “spooky” and (I love this) “like Frankenstein trying to sing a Christmas carol.”

Ossia’s next concert is February 19th. I hope you will pencil it in, eat an endangered banana, sketch a viola, and work on building an erotic relationship with your instrument, whatever it may be.




The pictures are great! So is your writing.