Challenging, brainy compositions from Caroline Shaw, Angelica Negron and Sophie Lacaze.

Present Music has been around for almost 40 years, but the performance on Friday, Feb. 22, In the New Chamber, at the new Jan Serr Studio atop UW-Milwaukee’s Kenilworth Square East building, was its first there and sold out in the days prior. The space is gorgeous, like a science-fiction-penthouse for art, with radiant views of the East Side elevating more minor buildings to make a new skyline. But how did the studio sound?

The concert opened with pianist Cory Smythe playing and plucking “Scape” by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, a piece from 2011 that requires the musician to scrape and otherwise bother strings inside the piano, with the intention of creating a “fantasy music box.” And so Thorvaldsdottir does something uncommon with the most common of instruments, and the studio’s metal and concrete surfaces hardened and firmed up the sound.

For the night, curator and violinist Eric Segnitz, a member of the Present Music Ensemble, chose works solely from women composers who “we’ve not had enough access to,” starting with Thorvaldsdottir. The resulting performances often integrated recordings, especially heavily edited ones dense with sonic information.

While some were recognizable, including Gertrude Stein, others were not. As many composers and sound artists have noted, once you look beyond conventional instruments as tools, the world becomes almost impossibly big.

Flutist Jennifer Clippert, professor of flute at UW-Milwaukee, commanded a couple such pieces: “Willingly,” by Alex Temple, and “Voices of Australia,” by Sophie Lacaze. Temple is a skilled rescuer of everyday sounds, and Lacaze’s work is inspired by both scientific research and music’s oldest and most traditional uses.

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After the intermission, the concert’s centerpiece, “Enter’Acte,” performed by string quartet, came from Caroline Shaw, the youngest-ever person to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. In the past, Present Music has commissioned music from Shaw, whose work is varied and includes record producing for Kanye West. 

“Enter’Acte” takes a piece by Haydn and transforms it, “juxtaposing 18th-Century harmony and phrasing with 21st-Century notions of pacing and instrumental color,” the program says.

But the work of Angelica Negron provided the show’s peak. Negron is a composer who writes for both the very, very small (toys and such) and the very large, i.e. orchestras. Her “Here” used a large number of custom-build music boxes operated by audience volunteers who quietly positioned themselves around the studio. To end, they drilled on the top of the boxes with sticks, and silence followed.

There’s more to come at Jan Serr Studio, which also joined the list of venues at the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival last fall.

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