Miranda Cuckson — Image via mirandacuckson.com

Miranda Cuckson at Amsterdam

Music for Violin, Viola, and Electronics

One of the predicaments facing contemporary classical music is that most of the people who hear it only hear it when it’s brand-new. World premieres are all well and good — and of course they need to happen if the music is going to be heard at all — but when a piece is completely new, nobody has really had a chance to decide yet whether it’s any good, much less deepen their appreciation of it. So it was a treat Saturday night to hear violinist and violist Miranda Cuckson, performing at Amsterdam Bar and Hall as part of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series, play a personally curated set of works composed between 1993 and 2012, including a number of works that Cuckson has had a chance to live with for some time.

Cuckson started out strong with Ileana Perez Velázquez’s Un ser con unas alas enormes, a piece for violin and prerecorded electroacoustic sounds. Cuckson kept up a consistent forward momentum through the piece’s lyrical opening, agitated central section, and gentle conclusion, while the backing track created a dense atmosphere reminiscent of forest noises. Next up was the most well-known composer on the program, Kaija Saariaho, with two related pieces. The earlier Nocturne for solo violin was dominated by Saariaho’s characteristic gesture — bursts of sound that melt into their fragile constituent parts — while the later Vent Nocturne for viola and electronics was more varied, in part due to the recorded snippets of breathing, wind, and bell-like sounds with which the meandering viola part was in dialogue.

After the intermission came the thorniest piece of the evening, Richard Barrett’s Air for solo violin, which started off with heavy use of dissonance before resolving into more gentle territory. This was followed by the piece that gave the program its title, Nina C. Young’s Sun Propeller. Young, who was present and behind the controls for all of the electronics on the program, spoke briefly about the piece, which was inspired by the drone- and overtone-based throat singing of Tuva. Written for a detuned violin with both live electronic processing and prerecorded sounds, the piece had a static, meditative feel. Wrapping up the program was Dai Fujikura’s Prism Spectra for viola, with live surround-sound electronic processing, an energetic, playful and immersive piece that brought things to a satisfying conclusion.

A moment worth mentioning occurred during Saariaho’s Vent Nocturne. Throughout the program, Cuckson’s instruments were amplified — often the case with classical concerts in nontraditional venues — but during this piece, her mic snapped off, and she played the rest of the movement unamplified. I can’t say how this went for listeners at the back of the hall, but sitting toward the front, I noticed that the viola took on a deeper, woodier tone; the range of sounds became more varied and colorful; and the people around me seemed to be listening and engaging more intently. It was a good reminder that, while amplification has its benefits, especially in settings like Amsterdam, there’s also something irreplaceable about the experience of hearing music make its way directly from the player’s instrument to audience members’ ears.

In any case, it has definitely become part of the DNA of the Liquid Music series to give artists space to devise programs that reflect their own artistic personalities, and with this concert, the approach has once again proven a success. Cuckson assembled a strong set of pieces that had some elements in common but plenty of diversity as well, and she did an incredible job navigating each piece’s twists and turns while ensuring that none of them came across as mere academic exercises. This weekend was apparently her Twin Cities debut, and I’m sure many audience members left looking forward to her return.

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.