When I think of American experimental music, naturally I think of women. It is the great female composers of recent decades who have been central in developing striking new forms, venues and methods.
It’s an intriguing distinction that many great female composers are often brilliant performers. My list of spine-tingling moments in contemporary women’s music is a long one, but highlights include Pauline Oliveros rattling a damaru (a small, hourglass-shaped pellet drum from Tibet) while tuning in forest sounds via satellite in a rundown Boston gallery, Meredith Monk serenading from a stone tower at the edge of Roosevelt Island in the East River of New York City, Laurie Anderson kneeling for a finale with what appeared to be a live light bulb in her mouth, and over the years Joan La Barbara singing her own rich music gloriously many times and in halls and galleries too numerous to mention.
These might be the founding mothers, but more than a few of their talented daughters are here in Houston.
It was with this extraordinary legacy in mind that last month I headed to labotanica, an exciting and unpretentious gallery space on Wentworth, to hear the second concert in a series devoted to local women’s experimental music. Aptly titled Hear/Her/Ear, the third installment arrives this Friday at 7 p.m. and features new music composed and performed by violin-violist and singer Rose Lange, pianist Hsin-Jung Tsai and Hello Kitty guitarist and Phoenix Orbs player Ben Lind.
I thought the latter instrument was actually a north Arizona unidentified flying object phenomenon, but of course it could be a wonderful musical tool as well. After all, Oliveros “played” a satellite more than once for her followers.
If the program this weekend is anywhere as successful as the July 23 show, we’re in for a big treat. After that one, I regretted missing the first concert in early July. Labotanica was more than sold out for the second show. It was truly standing-room only, and the performers had the motion-filled paintings and drawings of Houston multidisciplinary artist, choreographer and contemporary belly dancer Y.E. Torres as their backdrops.
There was a certain energy, a palpable spontaneity, in the air that night.
The compelling women’s music collective Pear Prickley Pear (the ensemble has had a string of former configurations and names, including Starfruit Dragonfruit and the more minimal Girl Band) opened the second show with a landscape of musical ideas, carefully layered and interdependent.
For the first few minutes, the women simply laughed. Then they poured water, strummed guitars, shook damarus and other drums, squeezed accordions and sang several haunting melodies, in counterpoint and in unison. It was the most dynamic, non-interventional music I’ve heard in a very long time.
And just as casually as they had arrived at the gallery, they put their instruments into suitcases and bags and re-absorbed themselves into the audience for the highlight of the evening, the laptop musician and composer Alexandra Marculewicz Adshead.
Alexandra told me after the show that she was a little bit nervous, since it had been four years since she had performed and this was also her first formal show in Houston. She worked in Brooklyn for many years and has collaborated with a number of dance companies. At labotanica, she offered a symphony of samples from a conversation she had with her very young daughter. The effect was sort of like sitting in the middle of a large flock of birds, bright and flurried.
Her second piece was a kind of chamber opera based on text from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, very haunting and emphatic. The finale was filled with long, sustained harmonies and vocal fragments, hypnotic in nature, a sort of concerto for mouse (the laptop kind) and soprano. A composer of the future, her next performance in Houston is eagerly anticipated.
The last act was from DJ/composer Khrystah Gorham, a delightfully informal artist who preferred the wine to flow while she presented her work, which she categorized as “screw,” a mixing style in which R&B is slowed down and re-imagined as a form of diminution. Gorham says this is a Houston form, and I was thrilled to experience this great music for its potential to provoke social interaction and relaxation.
The show on Friday promises some more intriguing performances, and I’m wondering how they will fit in with the legacy of women’s new music. Rose Lange has a background as a classical musician, leader of the Vadrozsa Hungarian Band in Seattle, and as a Roma singer and gamelan performer. She is also a dancer.
Ben Lind worked with her in a musical trio a few years ago, and is attracted to unusual vocal techniques, linguistics and nonverbal communication. I’m really looking forward to that Hello Kitty guitar. Hsin-Jung Tsai, who hails from Taipei, Taiwan, is an accomplished pianist who studied with Tania Leon and Bernadette Speech at City University of New York.
The Concert is 7 p.m. Friday at labotanica, 2316 Elgin (at Dowling); $5 donation.