The Universe According to Present Music

“Time, Nature, Culture, Sound” created a rich soundtrack to accompany exhibits at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

The peak of my Milwaukee-Public-Museum-going years was a while ago, when my son’s dinosaur fascination was at its peak. So I am thankful that Present Music brought me back to the MPM for Saturday’s “Time, Nature, Culture, Sound” concert, during which hundreds of music lovers made their way through the museum to hear contemporary sounds in appropriate environments. There were soaring and lyrical vocals to accompany planetarium images of distant galaxies. Anxious squeaks and shrieks as a soundtrack to cretaceous carnivores. And rapturous flute choruses to send a (stationary) flock of migrating geese on their way. More specifically, I’m thankful to have seen and heard the following:

➞ The by turns furious and tender violin work of Eric Segnitz and Naha Greenholz on Nina C. Young’s Tethered Within, the most rewarding piece of pure music on the program. Over Jennifer Clippert’s (alto flute) and William Helmers’s (bass clarinet) rippling wind arpeggios, the strings played searching figures, sometimes introspective and sometimes violent, that created palpable tension. Segnitz also dug deep into his part in David Lang’s post-minimalist Learn to Fly.

Marcus Rubio plays an Aloe Vera plant
Photo by Jessica Kaminski

➞ The look on audience faces as they wandered in the museum’s rain forest exhibit, and realized that the mysterious sounds they were hearing were being created by a potted aloe vera plant. Cory Smythe’s Asphodeloideae uses sensors to collect the plant’s “biodata” and then feed sit into a computer program to create a shifting palette of sound. Marcus Rubio stroked the plant’s leaves and touched the soil to alter the soundscape. And you thought aloe plants were only good for healing kitchen burns.

Malia Chow
Photo by Jessica Kaminski

➞ The richly curious experience of wandering through artifacts from the Pacific Islands and pre-Columbian America to the sounds of traditional instruments, including Julio Pabon performing on the didgeridoo and Malia Chow playing Hawaiian instruments.

Chelsie Propst sings among the stars.
Photo by Jessica Kaminski

➞ The transcendent experience of hearing Somei Satoh’s The Heavenly Spheres Are Illuminated by Lights while contemplating huge overhead images of those very heavenly spheres. You’d think soprano Chelsie Probst might be a little intimidated competing with the majestic images of nebulae and galaxies projected on the screen of the Soref Planetarium, but her performance (accompanied by pianist Jeff Stanek and percussionist James McKenzie) was a model of controlled rapture.

➞ The dazzling concentration and intensity of the Chicago-based Ensemble Dal Niente, which performed Ashley Fure’s Something to Hunt under the watchful eye of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in mid-chomp. Eerie, high-harmonics from a trio of woodwinds combined with violently stroked string notes (often played with the wooden part of the bow instead of the horsehair) in a soundscape that held its own against the primal violence of the surroundings.



Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.