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Review: Fast Forward Festival 2014

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Fast Forward Austin held its fourth annual marathon on Saturday, and the day-long new music festival seemed to hit its stride.

This year’s fest felt streamlined. Sets came and went on time, a healthy crowd came early and turned over with new faces throughout the evening, culminating for the Austin premiere of a fresh piece by an Irish composer, conducted by Peter Bay and featuring the vocals of mezzo-soprano Kathryn Findlen.

This year it was harder to plan your day (or maybe we say that every year). Do you leave out Skyros Quartet’s collaboration with a group of New York composers? Or skip out on the Grant Wallace Band’s progressive Americana project?

Almost inevitably you regret not coming earlier. Before you know it, you step outside to the North Door’s patio during a set break and discover that it’s dark.

So, some highlights.

Austin’s Line Upon Line percussion showed what they can do after their recent European tour and a few years under their belts. They packed variety into their short set like no one else: Steve Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood,” a spacey commission by Kate Soper, and capped things off with Xenakis’ “Okho,” all its bombastic bravado punctuated with pin-point perfect entries that can only come from years of playing together. And they were having fun up there too — even when they had to double their parts during the Reich (it usually takes five players, not three).

Tatsuya Nakatani blew a few minds, sounding like he was clamouring through an apartment building eviscerating cabinets full of pots and pans. That, in between his otherworldly gong-bowing overtones.

Sets alternated from stage to floorspace, and that affected certain acts. Nakatani crouches so low that it was sometimes impossible to see what he was playing from your chair. Setting up seats in the round (which happened for New York’s Mantra Percussion) would have offered more sightlines (and more intimacy too).

Speaking of Mantra Percussion, their hour-long set consisted of just one piece, Michael Gordon’s “Timber.” The setup of consumer wood pieces on saw horses also came with a light show that responded to their playing. The piece, essentially rhythms passed around a circle of six players, is invigorating, but after forty minutes of only minor changes in timbre and rhythm, it challenges attention spans. This is the kind of minimalism that makes Reich’s wood blocks sound like maximalism.

The joy in Fast Forward is that it’s constantly changing gears. And this year’s performance of Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy’s “That the Night Come,” a song cycle for singer and ensemble, that’s based on text by W.B. Yeats.

Works like this can verge on melodramatic, but Dennehy’s score is dissonant and peculiar enough (with accordion and electric guitar amidst strings, piano and marimba), that your interest stays piqued throughout.

This might have been the most delicate piece played in an Austin bar in a while. Mezzo soprano Kathryn Findlen, in sleek evening dress sang her dramatic part as for the stage, and Peter Bay (appropriately eschewing a coat) led the ensemble with a tight rein, effortlessly pulling the complex piece together.

The ensemble parts are often scurrying below the vocals, and at times we heard a few missed connections in the strings. But this is about the vocals, and Findlen movingly carried Years’ words throughout. There is a ton of vibrato here, which sometimes leaves you to wonder what it’s communicating (especially when sections of straight tone seem more effective), but the piece as a whole is very emotionally compelling, the sort of thing that you’ll grow to love over time.

Bring on next year’s Fast Forward.