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Ensemble members let loose with unconventional methods

By Chelsey Urdahl
On March 29, 2010

  • Jory Tindall, a sophomore jazz studies major, improvises during the contemporary music piece “Edges” at the Open Space Music Festival of New Music Friday at the Kress Cinema, 817 Eighth Ave.

Most people think of music as being made up of specific melodies and rhythms, but UNC's Cobra Ensemble took traditional coordination of notes and hosted an evening event of controlled freestyle Friday at the Kress Cinema lounge.

The 13-member group, composed of former and current University of Northern Colorado students and professors, performed Christian Wolff's contemporary piece "Edges," featuring a variety of instruments: violin, keyboard, percussion, alto saxophone, flute, electric guitar, acoustic bass, accordion, banjo and harmonica.

The only guide the musicians had was a sheet of paper with a seemingly random assortment of squiggles and symbols scattered around the page, each with a different meaning: "clear," "very rapid" and "concerted and resonant" were just a few of the directions given. 

The result is an improvisatory, dissonant exercise in tension and release. The musicians often use alternative methods to make sounds, such as playing the banjo with a violin bow, crinkling aluminum foil and plastic bags, drawing a hair comb across their strings, playing the flute through the neck and mouthpiece of a saxophone and beating percussively on their guitars.

The music made during the hour-long performance was a hypnotic, otherworldly collaboration of musical ideas.

"It was a sound collage," said Marty Kenny, a senior jazz studies major who performed with the group.

Amy Kim, a senior jazz studies major, said she enjoyed the performance.

"The musicians were so into their instruments," Kim said. "It was great watching top-notch musicians play interesting music."

Wolff, a renowned composer and professor of music a Dartmouth College, said he originally composed the piece for a group of improvising musicians.

"I wanted to give them something to think about," he said. "I wanted them to focus on playing differently than if they were just improvising."

The performance was part of the second annual Open Space Festival of New Music, organized and directed by UNC School of Music professors Paul Elwood and Sara Heimbecker. The many events on Thursday and Friday included master classes with Wolff and Steven Drury (a professor and contemporary music specialist from New England Conservatory), a performance by New England Conservatory's world-renowned contemporary music group Callithumpian Consort, music reading sessions and a lecture and guitar performance that was given by the editor of the journal American Music, Michael Hicks.

Elwood said he was pleased with the outcome and they are already planning next year's Open Space Festival.

"It's been a pleasure to have Christian Wolff," he said. "He is a legend in the field of contemporary music. It's a great opportunity for the students to hear what he has to say and to perform with him." 

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