The Great Noise Ensemble‘s music director, Armando Bayolo, introduced their concert Friday night at the Mansion at Strathmore with a quote from Homer — not the blind poet, but the preeminent bard of our modern times. Appearing as part of Strathmore’s aptly named Friday Night Eclectic series meant that folks could imbibe spiritous beverages as they listened to the Great Noise. Bayolo, noting the Great Noisers’ mission to make contemporary music less scary and more fun, saluted said beverages with Homer J.’s toast: “To alcohol — the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems!” If the bar itself didn’t give a clue, this confirmed it: This was not going to be your usual super-serious classical concert.
The Great Noise Ensemble was joined for the evening by Paranoid Cheese, the nom de performance of Baltimore’s own Marc Mellits, who played keyboards and led four musicians from the ensemble in eleven pieces he composed. Before each piece, he spoke a few, typically funny words about its background, and generally continued to encourage the audience to have fun by his charming presence. He never announced the names of the other performers, however, a big faux pas and also a roadblock to acknolwedging their contributions. From the GNE website, I am guessing Mark Sylvester was on electric guitar, Chris DeChiara on percussion, and Andrea Vercoe on violin and electric violin. I honestly cannot tell who the cellist was; I’ll update later. (Update: She was Natalee Spehar; my other guesses were correct.) Whoever they were, they all seemed extremely pleased to be playing with Mellits.
His music is minimalist, with tonal harmonies and regular rhythms, albeit with plenty of spice in the formula. Mellits’ faster pieces, like “Dreadlocked” or “The Misadventures of Soup,” typically start with one instrument drilling out a quick running figure with off-beat accents; others quickly add new melodic layers with contrasting rhythmic accents. (Sometimes, in his “Machine” pieces, everything seems to start at once, and the rhythms rarely vary, bracingly imperturbable.) Lots of times the newer melodies are slower, so you get the effect of something soaring over a churning landscape; typically, these melodies were in the violin. Such soaring melodies also drove Mellits’ slower music, like the lovely nocturne “Mara’s Lullaby” or the somber “Lefty’s Elegy,” but the accompaniment left pauses and sighs enough to create tension as the melody soared above, even as the harmonic and rhythmic language remained basically the same.
Broadly, it wasn’t anything a person with a casual interest in contemporary music hasn’t heard before, but Mellits has a sure ear for how to combine melodic and rhythmic elements for complementarity and contrast, and his ear for timbre is even better. Closely miked, the two string players got to project not only their melodic side but also their guttural scrapes on hard attacks (especially when the electric violin was in use), nicely dovetailing with Sylvester’s flashes of well-calculated roughness. It was also cool to be able to feel the pizzicato pluck of a cello in one’s body thanks to the miracle of amplification. DeChiara spent most of his time on a marimba, giving him the ability both to plonk out discombobulating rhythmic accents with aplomb and to shade and trill when quieter moments came. Sylvester began some of the faster pieces, like the straightforwardly titled first number, “Opening,” with synth timbres fat and sticky enough to work in Headhunters songs, but Herbie Hancock never would have tried the rhythmic twists and turns that Mellits does. Trying to shake one’s body to Mellits’ music would have involved a few acts of faith or a rock-solid internal metronome, but my toe kept tapping in interesting ways throughout. I bought Mellits’ “Paranoid Cheese” CD at intermission, which features almost all the music performed at this concert; that should give you an idea of how much I enjoyed listening to it.
Speaking of which: According to the Facebook invite to this concert, Strathmore was originally going to make available only limited seating, but it turned out everyone except one weirdo wanted to sit down for the duration of the concert, and the house staff kept bringing in seating until the demand was satisfied. I was that one weirdo, and I was glad of it: this music would be tough to dance to, but Mellits still seems to mean for you to feel it in your body, and being able to feel my body, tap my toe, shift my weight when a phrase began or ended, etc., made the music feel all that much more impressive.
Not all the pieces were as successful as the ones named in this review, and some hiccups did occur in the performances, but Friday Night Eclectic, Great Noise Ensemble, and the Paranoid Cheesemonger combined to give me an experience I couldn’t get unless I trucked up on Peter Pan to hit (Le) Poisson Rouge: the experience of being free to appreciate unfamiliar, highly rhythmic music with my body as well as my mind, instead of sitting completely slack and forgoing the former. Also I got to appreciate with a PBR in my hand, which, as noted at the top of the show, goes a long way.
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Tell me I’m wrong, but is calling yourself the Great Noise Ensemble kind of like calling yourself the Excellent String Quartet or what? I get what they’re going for, but I feel like the name makes it too easy for reviewers who don’t like them to say “On Saturday they proved to be the Mediocre Noise Ensemble at best” or something. Of course, if we all selected names based on whether it would be easy to make fun of them, our Speaker of the House would not be named “John Boehner,” so what do I know.