newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble Challenges Apathy with “Dislocation + Defiance”

The city was bathed in fiery light the evening of newEar Contemporary Chamber Ensemble’s “Dislocation + Defiance” program. The anticipation of the Chiefs’ impending Super Bowl game has the city in a spirit of jubilant civic pride, eager to spotlight our culture, energy, and creativity, shared with two billion people tuned in worldwide.

It’s a wary jubilance, of course, protecting us so briefly from the hell of the world, numbed with gold and scarlet anodyne.

As we center on Kansas City’s appearance on the national stage (and how that represents the Midwest), newEar (and Kansas City’s arts scene) is a factor in that civic pride, too. It is a small organization, yet newEar is a necessary component of our cultural make-up, with adventurous programming that incorporates social issues.

Though they could not have anticipated the coincidence when they designed their 27th season, newEar explores these themes of Location/Dislocation over the course of its four concert series as ensemble-in-residence for Diastole Scholars’ Center. Diastole, one of Kansas City’s hidden gems, is an intimate, art-filled space created to inspire academics and artists, tucked between the homes and businesses that border UMKC’s Hospital Hill.

For this program, newEar selected works from within the last decade, those written in the last few years responding to specific conflicts that pockmark the globe and threaten to engulf our humanity: war, scarcity, othering, environmental instability, violence, unkindness.

This was a well-conceived, well-performed concert, but it was not just that. “Art is not in some far-flung place,” wrote Lydia Davis, quoted during the concert comments by in the newEar board member Scott Steele.

It was not a comfortable, or comforting, program. These composers challenge the palliative hype of classical music, motivated by issues of social justice. The world can be harsh; their language responds harshly.

The first part took place in the Kiva, an eight-sided room with three descending tiers of seating, the musicians in the center. The 60 or so audience members were no more than 15 feet from them, able to look over their shoulder, if desired, and follow along on the page.

With each piece they paired a series of images, projected on a screen above and behind the musicians. Jon Onstot curated the photographs to emphasize the message of the music, many sourced from photojournalists capturing life’s turmoil.

Christopher Cerrone’s “Can’t and Won’t,” for string quartet, was set against images of people in transition: on boats, in camps, on foot, in stations, waiting, or maybe just stuck. Onstot paired the subtle pizzicato pulse and soft keening tones with historical black and white photographs, like Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, switching to vividly saturated contemporary images set against brighter, louder, thudding sections. Stanley Kuo and Elain Ng played violin, with Boris Vayner on viola and Sascha Groschang on cello.

The imagery was more directed during Anthony R. Green’s “Collide-oscope II,” focusing on refugees at the US-Mexico border and their ongoing conflict and trauma. The string trio used disjointed pops and sliding tones to build to a ragged melody on cello.

“feRal,” by Sakari Dixon Vanderveer, used string trio and alto saxophone, performed by Zach Shemon. Onstot chose images highlighting climate change, including many from the fires of Australia, the flames in counterpoint to the work’s urgent aggression.

Poet Sheri Purpose Hall joined the string quartet for Ted Hearne’s “The Answer to the Question that Wings Ask,” intoning the words of poet Saul Williams with power and presence.  The direct lines of verse were spoken against textural string lines, then cello and voice together, agitated, the others entering with increasing aggravation, a harsh descent resolving to a mournful chorale. Onstot chose artful, sepia-toned images of sky, clouds, water, stars, ice, birds: images that balanced shadow with bursts of brilliant white.

After intermission, the concert changed locations, moving to Diastole’s Parlor, a book- and art-lined living room. Here, they performed two works from Mary Kouyoumdjian’s “Children of Conflict” series, based on the images captured by war photographer Chris Hondros, who died on assignment in 2011.

“Samar’s Song” is a haunting lamentation, a powerful and damning piece, coming from a powerful and damning moment. Ng played the lilting, shifting line on violin in tandem with a recording of a woman’s wordless wail, with percussionists Kevin Clarke and Sarrah Cantrell providing an undulating background on vibraphone and marimba, ending with violent twacks to the bass drum in a thundering finish.

The program did not end so darkly, though. Kouyoumdjian’s richly melodic “A Boy and A Makeshift Toy” was both mournful and energetic, with violist Vayner stomping a seven pattern from Balkan folk rhythms, with Charles Dickinson on piano. Dickinson ended the program with Marcos Balter’s ‘Dreamcatcher,” an insistent, driving work that gradually unraveled its melody as though pulling on a snagged thread.

Reviewed Saturday, February 1, 2020 at Diastole Scholars’ Center. Program repeats Sunday, February 2 at 3 PM.  newEar’s season continues March 21 and 22. www.newear.org.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

  1. Jon Onstot says:

    Thank you for the very nice review, Libby. I’d like to add that the images accompanying Ted Hearne’s piece, “The Answer to the Question that Wings Ask”, were made by three local photographers: Angie Jennings, Lea Murphy, and myself. Unfortunately, I forgot to advance the final slide that contained the credits to that series of images.

Leave a Reply