MIT’s Sounding Concert Series Is All About Coming Together

This fall sees the return of the MIT Sounding series—and, as usual, a penchant for border crossings and experimentation.

The season kicks off on October 12 with a tribute concert to the influential composer Lou Harrison, who would have turned 100 in May. Harrison emerged from the American classical scene, but was a fierce proponent of cultural cross-pollination, his work foregrounding what is now called world music. Harrison had a particular affinity for the resonant textures of the Javanese percussion ensembles known as gamelans. The October Sounding program, Mr. Harrison’s Gamelans, features two of Harrison’s compositions—Suite for Violin and American Gamelan and Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan—as well as the world premiere of By the Numbers, an homage to Harrison by MIT professor Evan Ziporyn, who is also the faculty director of MIT’s Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) and the curator of MIT Sounding.

Mr. Harrison’s Gamelans, which is presented in collaboration with the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, features violinist Johnny Gandelsman, pianist Sarah Cahill and MIT’s Gamelan Galak Tika. But the real stars are arguably the gamelans upon which the pieces are to be performed: Gamelan Si Betty and Old Grandad #4 Gamelan, both instruments of Harrison’s own design. The gamelans are on loan from MIT-affiliated artist Jody Diamond, who is an expert on Harrison’s music, as well as a consultant and performer on the project.

“It’s like opening up the world’s most gigantic LEGO set,” Ziporyn says of working with Harrison’s gamelans. “And then you get to play it.” Harrison wasn’t the first classical composer to mine ideas from other cultures, but he was the first to fully incorporate the instruments and techniques that inspired him. The result, Ziporyn says, is something truly special—music that lives so comfortably in the in-between that it sounds like nothing else. “It sits right at this crossroads,” Ziporyn says of Harrison’s work. “And depending on which way you look at it, you’re getting a completely different perspective.”

The concert following Mr. Harrison’s Gamelans involves a merging of another sort, that of music and technology. On December 1, cellist Maya Beiser will present the culmination of her residency as the inaugural Mellon Distinguished Visiting Artist at MIT CAST. Beiser pioneered the use of looping and MIDI technology in classical cello, but the upcoming performance will go a step further, aided by the co-director of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, Skylar Tibbits, and lighting designer Joshua Higgason. Using heat-responsive materials developed in Tibbits’s lab, the designers plan to rig a display that responds directly to the touch of bow against string, resulting in a multisensory performance with a futuristic bent.

In contrast, the February 23 concert will look backwards to April 4, 1968, the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. With the 50th anniversary of that cataclysmic event on the horizon, Institute Professor Marcus Thompson plans a program around healing and transcendence. The concert also marks the 50th anniversary of his own debut recital in Boston. It will feature Thompson on viola and works by Vivaldi, Morton Feldman and Ralph Vaughan Williams, as well as the Boston-area premiere of Elena Ruehr’s Shadow/Light for Viola Solo and String Quartet. The selections are wide ranging, but share a tendency toward the sublime. In an era of mounting racial terror, such music may serve as both a gesture of defiance and a balm.

The season concludes on May 11 with what MIT professor Fred Harris has dubbed “The Great Clarinet Summit.” On that night, some of the world’s finest clarinetists—jazz experimenter Don Byron, Dixieland virtuoso Billy Novick, MIT’s Evan Ziporyn and others—will gather in celebration of their chosen instrument. Featuring repertoire old and new, from jazz to classical and beyond, the night promises to be a joyful celebration of a versatile instrument that once enjoyed much greater prominence in American popular music.

Along with appearances by the MIT Festival Jazz and MIT Wind ensembles, the program features a piece for community orchestra, which is open to clarinetists of all ages and levels. It’s a fitting ending for a season that places the commingling of differences at its center. In classic MIT fashion, Sounding has always been about what’s next: in music, in technology, in culture. But as this season’s lineup shows, it’s not progress unless you take everyone with you.


Information about tickets

October 12, 2017: Mr. Harrison’s Gamelans

December 1, 2017: Maya Beiser

February 24, 2018: Marcus Thompson’s Faculty Recital

May 11, 2018: The Great Clarinet Summit

Posted on September 12, 2017 by Amelia Mason