The Fourth Wall: Green Street Studios

I couldn’t find somewhere to write about this on short notice, so here it is unfiltered.

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Flutist Hilary Abigana waved two brightly colored, stiff plastic tubes in the air. “These are called boomwhackers, because when you whack them,” here she struck one on the ground, “they go boom.” The audience nodded. “That was funny, new music audience!”

If there hadn’t been a large standing sign outside Green Street Studios, I would have walked right past it. The door is set deep into a building, and one must pass through another door and up a steep flight of stairs to get to the main studio. “You’re almost there!” a friendly voice encouraged as I mounted the final steps.  That open-armed, casual attitude didn’t stop at the door. The musicians of self-described “hybrid arts ensemble” The Fourth Wall – Abigana, plus bass trombonist C. Neil Parsons and percussionist Greg Jukes – do not break their titular barrier so much as pulverize it. They lovingly but concisely describe their pieces, they call up volunteers to the stage, they crack jokes to the audience and launch good-natured potshots at each other.

“This show might have some surprises,” Parsons said, as Jukes picked up his accordion not having secured the bellows closed, making a loud cluster of notes erupt. (As an accordionist, I have made that gaffe too many times to count.) “That was a surprise.”

This show had slightly less of Fourth Wall’s madcap antics than usual. Spread through it was the premiere of Stefanie Lubkowski’s “Vassal of the Sun,” which was written for the ensemble plus soprano Elisabeth Halliday. The staging of the piece centers on a huge wheel designed by Phil Servita, wide enough for a person to stand in. In Part I, the wheel was in four curved pieces on the ground, each player standing on one rocking back and forth. Long foghorn tones rumbled from Parsons’ trombone, and a bowed marimba lent an eerie sheen. In part III, the wheel was fully assembled; Abigana stood in the device while it was rolled and turned around the stage by the other musicians, who were often singing or playing at the same time and losing no coherence for it. The slow and reverent piece gave its most demanding parts to Halliday, who at one point had to sing while being hoisted ten feet above the ground, lying on the outside of the wheel. Part II was unchoreographed and felt the least polished, dragging through musical doldrums at times.

The other premiere of the night was Aaron Jay Myers’ Chrysopoeia, full of jabbing rapidfire chords. It seemed precarious at times; the ensemble needs some more time to grow into it, but once they feel at home in the piece and add their signature choreography, it’s going to be a knockout. We definitely saw the prototype version of both those pieces.

Between sections of “Vassal of the Sun,” Halliday put the amazing elasticity of her voice on full display in Richard Cameron Wolfe’s micro-opera MeMarie (pronounced “memory”). Three very different texts smash together word by word. Like a flashing strobelight, Halliday’s voice morphed between robotic speech, high, hysterical keening, and sweet (feigned?) acceptance of loss.

The last portion of the show was a grab bag of selections from Fruit Flies Like a Banana, the circus-meets-classical show that Fourth Wall brings to fringe festivals and schools all over. Because there aren’t many pieces for bass trombone, flute, and percussion (wonder why?) the ensemble’s repertoire is mostly made of commissions and their own arrangements. The group recently put out their first call for scores, receiving over 100 submissions, and most of the pieces on the program were composed within the last year.

Jen Baker’s “Near to Solitude” featured the previously mentioned boomwhackers and five game volunteers from the audience. Parsons stood in the spotlight, haunting intervals drifting from his multiphonic trombone on top of a sustained chorus of quietly rustling boomwhackers. In “Dyngyldai,” by Hilary Abigana’s brother Brett Abigana, the solo flutist vocalized and played at the same time, a driving hum spurring forward the instrument’s pentatonic melody. 

The choreography they incorporated (tangos, spins, jumping) sometimes seemed impossibly demanding, but musical coherence never diminished. If there’s another flutist that can play the melody of Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1 with such lithe, graceful phrasing while being twisted around and held upside down, I will be very surprised.

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