Review: LiveConnections Presents Nicholas Photinos + Florent Ghys at World Cafe Live

Nicholas Photinos’ and Florent Ghys’ evening of “string innovations” was another successful pairing for LiveConnections Presents’ ambitious curator Mary Wheelock Javian. Her 2016-17 season “is focused on pairing virtuosic string players with a musical partner who takes their music in a new direction.” An evening will combine performances of work from each artist’s repertoire with new work combining their talents.

Nicholas Photinos. Photo via
Nicholas Photinos.

In some cases, the pairing creates completely new sounds for the string players’ work. In the pairing of cellist Photinos and double bassist/composer Ghys, it is more of an amplification of their individual work, and offers striking examples of how chamber music can incorporate modern technology. The innovation in both musicians’ “solo” work includes combining live acoustic performance with recorded media. Photinos’ individual performances involve overdubbed electronic sounds and recorded human voice that often exists against his cello playing. Ghys’ work includes additional overdubbed instruments (including, if my ears were correct, occasionally doubling of his bass playing for contrapuntal effect), but also videos used to clever effect: for instance, he has composed numerous pieces inspired by TV weather reports from many different cultures. I do not think the two artists have performed together live before, but they know each other’s work: Ghys composed the title track for Photinos’ upcoming solo album, Petits Artéfacts, which closed the evening.

The first half of the evening, before the intermission, left me asking my companion, “Who knew chamber music could be witty?” It began with Photinos’ performance of Jacob TV’s Dadaesque “TATATATA,” in which a melodic cello line is played against a recorded voice saying the syllable “Ta.” The cello and the voice sometimes work harmoniously and sometimes against each other. This was followed by a new work by Ghys – a legato work in progress “about two hours old,” he told us – for cello and double bass. This piece was accompanied by what I’ll call a “jump-action” video of Photinos’ disembodied arms playing the cello, courtesy of an interactive video device (activated through a tablet attached to Ghys’ bass) which the composer designed in recent months (“following the election,” which I hope means we can look forward to some provocative new works).

This first section concluded with three pieces from Ghys’ 2014 movie-album Télévision: “Sans Contrafaçon,” “Teamwork,” and “Swing out from open position.” (The entire album can be viewed online, which I strongly recommend.) I find myself fascinated by Ghys’ video work. Many of his pieces work well on the ear alone, but I can’t imagine only listening to Télévision – the video images and editing are an integral part of the composition. And while the album is excellent on my computer screen, there was distinctly extra value in Ghys’ live performance against the video.

Florent Ghys. Photo via
Florent Ghys.

The second part of the program began more seriously. Photinos started with David T. Little’s moving “. . . and the sky was still there,” which was inspired by (and incorporates recording of) a U.S. servicewoman’s decision to leave the Army during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era. This was followed by Angélica Negrón’s lovely “Panorama.” The power of the recorded voice in the first captured most of my attention; what made live performance valuable was that seeing Photinos listening to the words as he was playing. More than any other piece in the evening, “Panorama” made the recorded element secondary to the live playing: but the last few bars consisted, visually, of Photinos again listening.

Ghys’ composition “Petits Artéfacts” closed the performance. This is a 6-part composition, written for Photinos. As Photinos said in his introduction, it ranges “from the really silly to the beautiful.” Based on this performance, I imagine that Photinos’ album will be an artifact like Ghys’ Télévision: a couple of sections (“Factory” and “Flowers”) feel complete without visual accompaniment; other sections, including the silliest and the most poignant, are likely to make little sense. “Pong” features Photinos’ playing against an increasingly distorted video of the eponymous game. “Family” accompanies a video made up of home movie excerpts interspersed with leader tape. The excerpts are accompanied by held notes, the leader tape by silence. It’s beautiful in performance; without the visual, I suspect it sounds generically “minimalist.”

“Information” works slightly differently: it’s another of Ghys’ odes to TV weather reports. Ghys says, “Weather reports are very poetic in any language,” and each language has its own rhythm and melodic patterns. His pieces incorporate and build off these patterns, as well as the presenters’ body language. “Information” uses an Iranian weather report, and is the most melodic I’ve seen: with slight editing, the weather woman seems to sing her report. I’m sure it sounds lovely on its own, but feels more powerful with its source material visible.

This was a beautiful, uplifting evening in dark times. LiveConnections Presents should be on the radar of anyone who loves new music.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including an intermission.

Nicholas Photinos + Florent Ghys performed for one night only, January 27, 2017, at World Cafe Live – 3025 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For future LiveConnections Presents events, visit the calendar of events.


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