Ensemble dal Niente
  • Chelsea Ross Photography
  • Ensemble dal Niente

This year’s International Beethoven Festival kicks into high gear on Saturday with a slew of disparate events, including a performance of Bach’s Saint John’s Passion by one of the fest’s house groups—the Prometheus Baroque Ensemble—conducted by the great German composer Matthias Pintscher at 5 PM. But for me the real excitement arrives on Sunday, where the impressive breadth of the festival, coordinated by founder and artistic director George Lepauw and music director Aurelian Pederzoli (of Spektral Quartet), is on full display.

I’m particularly excited about one of the evening performances, a bracing program by Chicago’s fearless Ensemble dal Niente that I, unfortunately, cannot attend. The group will perform The Brightest Form of Absence, a 2011 work by the German composer Hans Thomalla—who’s taught at Northwestern University since 2007—that is organized around audio and video footage recorded in the Mojave Desert and Death Valley. Those recordings include strictly environment sounds—wind noises, crickets, the distant cry of railway brakes, as well as sounds produced by objects activated by collaborator William Lamson, such as a bottle being dragged through the sand or a flung rock falling to the ground. There are three vocal pieces in the 11-movement work that deviate from the rest, with sung poetry and instrumental gestures unconnected to the desert sounds. Thomalla abstracts many of the sounds, so it’s unlikely anyone would literally imagine a desert because of the music, but he certainly achieves a quality the desert presents.

As he writes in the program notes featured in Donaueschinger Musiktage 2011 (Neos), a three-CD set that includes a performance of the work by Ensemble MusikFabrik:

The desert is a place of physical extremes: the brightness of the sun, the distant horizon and the silence create a space in which we perceive the world of objects around us with heightened clarity. In The Brightest Form of Absence we encounter this landscape with the intent of letting it work on us, listening to it and observing its elements without actively intervening.

Also on the program is Kontakte by Karlheinz Stockhausen, an important early work for percussion, piano, and electronics from 1969-’70 (a separate version of the same name was composed exclusively for four-channel electronics). Below you can check out a performance of the piece by Bernard Wambach, Mircea Ardeleanu, and Fred Rensch.

YouTube video

Today’s playlist:

Amira, Amulette (World Village)
Fausto Romitelli, Anamorphosis (Tzadik)
Florian Weber, Biosphere (Enja)
Alexander Sigman, Nominal/Noumenal (Carrier)
Charles Mingus, The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady/Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (Impulse)