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January 30, 2009

Mobtown Modern goes vocal, with a vengeance

As a rule, I'm open to the wildest sorts of musical expression, which is why I always look forward to stopping by the Contemporary Museum for concerts by Mobtown Modern, Baltimore's edgiest enterprise. That doesn't mean I'm always persuaded by everything I hear. Wednesday night's program of voice-centered works didn't give me much to shout about (the performers did plenty of that).

Ken Ueno's Zansetsu would have been a lot more persuasive had not so many of the sounds emanating from the composer/performer's voice box been uncomfortably similar to those made by people about to regurgitate. And his idea of a grand finale, putting a microphone into his mouth to capture the explosions of Pop Rocks, seemed more bored-frat-boy stunt than artistic statement. Manto III by Giacinto Scelsi, which involved the drone of a viola and bloodless, wordless singing by the violist (Wendy Richman), owed its modest effectiveness primarily to the accompanying videography of Guy Werner. Missy Mazzoli's Shy Girl Shouting Music had an intriguing concept -- a vocalise performed over a kindling accompaniment of electric guitar, piano and bass. The music, though, never rose above the lukewarm, and Julieanne Klein's soprano sounded too tentative for the mix of melodic notes, wailing and what-not. (This corrects earlier misidentification of the soloist.02/01.)

More interesting was Tim Feeney's account of Les Corps a Corps, a bit of performance art by Georges Aperghis. Feeney produced a remarkable stream of vocal sound bites that suggested a primitive, or perhaps alien, language (something like "tum dooey" cropped up often) while he pounded a drum. Periodically, he stooped suddenly to look over his right shoulder. Eventually, decipherable words were spewed along with the intriguing verbal scat (including references to a "bleeding arm"). In its determinedly avant-garde way, it made for a taut bit of theater.

The most satisfying item came at the start of the evening -- Lipstick, by Jacob Ter Veldhuis. Here, flutist Katayoon Hodjati vividly negotiated minimalist-flavored virtuosic lines to a vivid track of taped voice-fragments and bold graphics.

In the end, I wish the program could have included more substance and quality, something along the line of what composer/performer Meredith Monk, a pioneer in extended vocal techniques, has done to such compelling effect. Still, you've got to hand it to Mobtown Modern for consistently taking chances and stretching Baltimore's music scene.

Next up, on March 3, the complete Sequenzas by the late Luciano Berio. That sounds very promising.

Posted by Tim Smith at 12:03 PM | | Comments (1)



The vocalist on the Mazzoli work was not Missy Mazzoli - it was Julieanne Klein. Thank you for correcting this in your review!

Missy Mazzoli

A million apologies. And thanks for alerting me.TIm

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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