MUSIC REVIEW | MARIO DIAZ DE LEÓN
By Steve Smith
Nothing gives a concert a sense of occasion like the buzz of a capacity crowd, a point that holds just as true at small experimental spaces as it does at marquee destinations like Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. You could see it in action on Friday night at Roulette, a venerable new-music institution now in a SoHo storefront of modest size, when a concert featuring works by Mario Diaz de León, a young New York composer working on his doctorate at Columbia University, attracted an audience that packed the room.
Part of the anticipation had to do with the performers on hand. The International Contemporary Ensemble, a flexible organization based in Brooklyn and Chicago, reliably attracts large, enthusiastic audiences with its wide-ranging programs and brilliant execution. Here, four members of the group — Claire Chase and Eric Lamb, on alto flutes; Joshua Rubin, a clarinetist; and Nathan Davis, a percussionist — worked alongside players from the Talea Ensemble, a four-year-old new-music group directed by Alex Lipowski, a percussionist, and Anthony Cheung, a pianist.
That an emerging composer had secured the attention of two prominent groups was itself cause for curiosity. Mr. Diaz de León, born in St. Paul in 1979, played in hard-core punk bands during the ’90s. When he started to write chamber works for acoustic instruments and electronics in 2001, he combined unorthodox techniques developed by composers like Gyorgy Ligeti, Iannis Xenakis and Giacinto Scelsi with influences culled from free improvisation, noise and black metal.
The results, as heard on “Enter Houses Of,” Mr. Diaz de León’s new CD on the Tzadik label, can sound as if the contents of a typical e-mail update from the avant-garde music distributor Forced Exposure had somehow been smashed into an unlikely fusion. In the pieces that opened the program — “Arum,” “Prism Path” and “Mansion,” presented in a seamless sequence — Ms. Chase and Mr. Lamb played elegant, mournful lines that drifted across waves of electronic crackle, howl and rumble, roughly jolted by Mr. Davis’s ritualistic pattering and rock-drummer outbursts.
Mr. Diaz de León, who controlled the electronics with a laptop from a position behind the audience, generally seemed less concerned with structure than with contrast. One exception, “ii.23,” for viola and electronics, followed a standard arc from slow and soft to fast and loud, and back. (The CD’s liner notes assure the listener that digital glitches heard in the piece are intentional.) Elizabeth Weisser brought an impressive old-fashioned virtuosity to her account.
Otherwise, what you noticed in pieces like “The Flesh Needs Fire,” for flute and clarinet with electronics, was that the boundary between foreground and background disappeared; instrumental gestures and lines melded with synthetic sounds in restless strands of ever-shifting color and vigor. The best came last: In “Gated Eclipse,” for sextet and electronics, a pulsating D passed among piano, winds and strings served as a gravitational root for a dreamlike sequence of hallucinatory intensity, which lingered well after the last note had faded.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 1, 2009
A music review on Monday about a concert featuring works by Mario Diaz de León, at Roulette in SoHo, rendered his surname incorrectly. It is Diaz de León, not de León.