Unheard-of//Ensemble’s concert Fire Ecologies at the Emory Performing Arts Studio March 16 was the type of performance you could only see in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or on a college campus. The night of music and visuals transported the audience to the frontier of modern contemporary music. Throughout the show, graphics projected behind the ensemble chased after terrifying trills and poignant pizzicatos.

Bringing this esoteric and urban music to new settings seems to be in Unheard-of//Ensemble’s wheelhouse. The group, which consists of clarinetist Ford Fourqurean, violinist Erica Dicker, cellist Iva Casian-Lakos and pianist Daniel Anastasio, has the selfproclaimed mission of “connecting communities across the United States through the development and performance of new music.” In this spirit, the concert on the 16th propelled the audience into a multidimensional cosmos of multimedia worlds.

The first composition performed by the group was Doug Bielmier’s “Corporate Responsibility Pledge,” with video art by Allison Tanenhaus. The music utilized a repetitive style reminiscent of minimalism. Pre-recorded digital audio and psychedelic distortions of vintage images accompanied the ensemble.

Daniel Anastasio from Unheard-of//Ensemble. Courtesy of Michael Yu.

Despite the politically-charged title, it was difficult to decipher a clear meaning from “Corporate Responsibility Pledge.” That did not mean the piece was ineffective, however. It felt impossible to look away from the hallucinatory visuals as they were carried up to the audience by the pulsating music. After the piece concluded, the heavy silence that characteristically follows minimalist music rang out through the hall.

Impressed by the premiere work, the audience quickly filled the room with bounding applause. This was particularly notable given its small size, with spectators numbering no more than 30. The audience also seemed to consist mostly of older community members and faculty, with only a few Emory students. Unheard-of//Ensemble did not seem disheartened by this, however. When the first round of applause came to a close, they launched into their next piece, “Rose 31,” as if they were performing for a hall of a thousand people.

Created by Dutch duo No Plexus, “Rose 31” was inspired by a particularly biting critique of the Le Labo fragrance of the same name. No Plexus were also responsible for the recorded backing track and haunting visuals that accompanied the ensemble.

In their execution of “Rose 31,” Unheard-of//Ensemble conveyed the feeling of a beautiful rose shimmering through a jar of formaldehyde. Deceptively comforting melodies in the strings and clarinet layered over a piano ostinato opened the work. Gradually, these gave way to disorienting atonal glissandos that evoked the experience of falling through a vast nothingness. Though “Rose 31” left a much more unsettling impression than “Corporate Responsibility Pledge” when it ended, it was just as warmly received by the audience.

If the first two performances were worlds, then the last piece of the evening, “Fire Ecologies,” was an entire universe. A commissioned composition by contemporary composer Christopher Stark, it is meant to be a confrontation with humans’ effects on nature through climate change. The work’s seven “scenes” have a diverse base of musical inspirations, ranging from Maurice Ravel to trap music to the sound of power lines. Yet, even audience members who were unaware could not help but be moved by the piece’s multitude of video and audio styles.

“Fire Ecologies” seemed to embody the deep, prelinguistic resonance that makes music and video such powerful mediums. Examples of this abound throughout the work, some more obviously than others. There was the moving solo from cellist Casian-Lakos accompanied by video of a deer staring at the audience. It evoked the indescribable feeling of seeing another living, breathing creature and slowly realizing that it goes about the world impervious to the machinations of human society. Flashing red images of burning twigs blazed as the ensemble beat out a fiery descent into chaos in syncopated time. The clarinet solo after the fire was just as pristine as the video of a lazy turtle that it accompanied. 

Because some of the visuals for the project had not yet been collected, the projections cut out for the final scene, allowing the ensemble’s last notes to capture the audience’s full attention. Then, the sound of water filled the room from the prerecorded, accompanying track. It slowly grew in severity until it reached the intensity of a rupturing dam and ended soon after. A rapturous flood of applause rushed from the audience — the final piece, like the rest of the night, was extremely well received.

Even after the music stopped, Unheard-of//Ensemble’s performance of “Fire Ecologies” left a lingering impression of hauntingly beautiful nature and the disturbing impact that humans have on it. Densely packed with several meanings, it felt impossible to decipher the entirety of the work the first time through. For an audience that is inexperienced with contemporary music, some uncomfortable parts of the performance could be mistaken for boring or obtuse.

That being said, the chemistry present between the ensemble and the composition did a lot to convey the piece’s complicated qualities. It demonstrated that Unheard-of//Ensemble is well suited to pursue their mission of connecting communities through contemporary music, even those that are not often exposed to it. The Emory music department is commendable for making Emory one of the communities to host the group’s unique universe of music and visuals.

Follow Unheard-of//Ensemble via their website or Instagram (@unheardofensemble) for information about future concerts.

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Sam Shafiro (he/him) (25C) is a Political Science major from Oak Park, Illinois. He is involved with the Emory Barkley Forum for Debate, Deliberation, and Dialogue and the Emory SIRE undergraduate research program. In his free time, Sam enjoys bananas and celery, as well as other fruits and vegetables.