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Macabre music 

by Marty Demarest


For Kendall Feeney, director of the contemporary chamber ensemble Zephyr, the decision to devote this Friday night's concert to the theme of Halloween was not only seasonal, but also artistic.


"A Halloween-themed Zephyr was something I've always wanted to do," explains Feeney. "The theme is ripe with possibilities to be eerie and devilish. And it's fitting because 20th-century music can be horrifying. It's filled with friction and anxieties. I mean, there's a reason that they don't use Mozart in scary movies."


Not relying on the tried-and-true charms of Mozart and other standard concert fare is nothing new for the Zephyr ensemble. Past concerts, featuring a pianist reciting a text while beating rhythms on his own body, four pianos and a battalion of percussion instruments accompanying a surreal film, and a tale told in part through brass instruments, have regularly invigorated and delighted the Spokane concert scene. For Halloween Zephyr, in order to evoke -- as Feeney describes it -- "a horror movie in your mind," the ensemble will be turning to one of the 20th-century's towering composers, one of its enfant terribles, and one of its most haunting instruments.


Igor Stravinsky's unique masterpiece A Soldier's Tale makes up the backbone of Friday night's program. Written for a small chamber ensemble and narrator, the piece tells the story of a bargain struck between a hapless soldier and the devil. But unlike Marlowe's and Goethe's tales of Faust, Stravinsky's work uses a simple, everyday character to make the point that it is most often in simple, everyday situations that people are tempted to compromise their values and ideals.


The tale of a much less ordinary man is at the heart of rebel composer Michael Daugherty's Dead Elvis. Written for the same instruments as the Stravinsky piece, but without a narrator, Daugherty has jokingly suggested that Dead Elvis could tell the same story, with Elvis as the soldier and the Colonel as the devil. Dead Elvis gives the bassoon the central role, playing variations on the Latin plainchant Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath -- used most often in masses for the dead. But the Elvis of the title is present -- the variations quickly turn more rock 'n' roll. Moreover, the composer -- who has written symphonies based on Superman and an opera on Jacqueline Onassis -- has noted that the bassoonist could dress up like Elvis. Given Zephyr's penchant for incorporating unusual visual elements, not to mention the costume tradition that goes along with Halloween, audience members shouldn't be surprised if his suggestion is taken.


But the visual highlight of Halloween Zephyr is almost certain to be the world premiere of composer Jonathan Middleton's Synergy 3, for electric cello, electronic sounds, piano and theremin. Used to generate the haunting astral voice in the theme of the original Star Trek series, as well as countless old horror movie soundtracks, the theremin has a long history of association with the macabre. Even Hannibal Lecter plays one in Thomas Harris' latest novel.


Feeney approached Middleton, who teaches at Eastern Washington University, about writing a work for the instrument when another composition, which also involved the theremin, became impossible to produce for the concert. Appropriately, the request initially frightened Middleton. "It has so many limitations," he says of the instrument. "Fortunately, Kendall Feeney bought one and lent it to me, so I got to sit down with it and work with it, having a hands-on experience."


For the performer, however, playing the theremin is almost entirely a hands-off activity. The performer changes the pitch and volume of the tone that it produces by moving a hand in the space between two antennae. According to Feeney, who will play the instrument, "It's extremely challenging to pick notes out of the air. And not only that, but some of the properties of the theremin change depending on to room that it's played in."


Appropriately, words like "random" and "flexible" fill the score for Synergy 3, along with curved lines drawn to indicate for Feeney the shapes that she must trace in the air with her hand. Accompanying the disembodied voice her gestures evoke, are ghostly pitches played by the cellist, and an electronic soundtrack. In Synergy 3, sounds that have no human correlation or source of origin come together to create the musical equivalent of a ghost -- a piece of music inhabiting the space, searching for its melody.





Halloween Zephyr takes place at the Met


on Friday, Oct. 26, at 8 pm. Tickets: $15-$18;


$10 students. Call: 325-SEAT.

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