Ashley Fure's 'The Force of Things'
Ashley Fure's 'The Force of Things' © DigitICE Media Team

Ashley Fure (born 1982; pronounced “fury”) is a much rewarded American composer. Born and raised on the Michigan Upper Peninsula, she passed through Interlochen, Oberlin and Harvard and now teaches at Dartmouth. She was a finalist for last year’s Pulitzer Prize for music and has won myriad honours and commissions.

Her best-known work is The Force of Things. It had a preliminary premiere at the 2016 Darmstadt Ferienkurse by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). Last year there were well-received performances in Montclair, New Jersey, and now the score is being heard in New York at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Centre in Brooklyn, courtesy of Lincoln Center’s Most Mozart Festival. Only 45 minutes long in the actual performance space, it was performed twice a night until August 8.

The Force of Things has an arresting subtitle: An Opera for Objects. But while a lot of only quasi-operatic works these days call themselves operas, this one is harder than most to shoehorn into that category. A philosophical sound installation might be more like it.

The sonic bedrock is a vibrating, fluttering rumbling generated by 24 subwoofers, much of it below the threshold of human hearing, which one encounters first in a kind of preliminary ante-room. Overlain are various effects from nine ICE members: exotic percussion, a bassoon and saxophone, whispers and semi-vocalising through megaphones, the bowing of amplified strings attached hither and yon, and, as the climax, the lovely manipulation of vibrating strings rising out of five subwoofers facing upwards. The volume ranged from mere hints of sound to roaring onslaughts.

Fure tells us earnestly that the rumblings represent the underlying forces of nature, under siege from climate change. The mood is trippy yet ominous, hinting at “the looming presence of ecological disaster”.

There is decor of a sort, oddly amateurish looking. Tiered platforms support the subwoofers and the musicians, with wrinkled hangings made of silicone, paper and plastic; the performers wear poncho-like garments. Adam Fure, the composer’s brother, is listed as co-creator but seems primarily responsible for “architectural design”. Ashley Fure is co-stage director along with César Alvarez.

The whole thing, beyond its eloquent yet pretentious programmatic descriptions, is perhaps too indebted to the sonic experiments of the past half-century in Europe and the US. Some of the sounds are telling; one remains curious to hear where this composer is heading. But she is not there yet.

★★★☆☆

To August 8, lincolncenter.org

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