Review: Du Yun Conjures of a Musical World of Legos and Chants

Given the option, the composer and performer Du Yun often pushes into multiple disciplines. This isn’t only the case when she is providing new scores for vintage silent films, or creating new works for the stage, like her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angel’s Bone.” Even presentations of her chamber pieces are likely to come outfitted with projected video art.

The risk is that notes and rhythms can get lost in the shuffle. I remember one concert at which I decided to shut my eyes and focus on Ms. Du’s music, which often provides a thrilling sense of dramatic development, skating wide of traditional timbres by employing extended techniques.

During the first half of a Composer Portrait concert on Thursday, at the Miller Theater at Columbia University, Ms. Du’s multimedia impulse was once again in evidence, thanks to Nicholas Houfek’s lighting design and some theatrical, mod-futurist costuming provided by a few players in the International Contemporary Ensemble — which counts Ms. Du as a founding composer. This time, the visuals and the music worked together.

Played without interruption, this half of the evening featured what Ms. Du described as a series of “Legos,” with performers standing or seated on appropriately rectangular blocks positioned on the Miller stage. As lights at the front of the stage dimmed, a solo performer whose piece had concluded could quietly shuffle off, as the wisp of the following piece sounded from another corner — and as Mr. Houfek’s lighting design played with ombre tints and arrangements of polygons on a large screen at the rear of the hall.

It was gripping, partly the result of some judicious editing. By taking a collection of her past chamber pieces and linking them together this way — and in one case superimposing them — Ms. Du managed to create a brisk, effective tour of her style. The exaggerated vibrato in the violin solo “Under a tree, an udatta” have an analogue in the sometimes woozy cello part of “Zinc Oxide, a tale of a seagull.”

Yet these similarities of gesture do not create sound-alike works. In “Zinc Oxide,” Ms. Du’s own vocalizations — sometimes doled out as solemn chants, and sometimes belted, as though issuing from a cabaret in a sci-fi film — joined with her string writing to create a distinct, incantatory gravity.

The International Contemporary Ensemble’s many years of familiarity with her works also helped create a sense of unity among the pieces. The saxophonist Ryan Muncy performed “Dinosaur Scar” on a recent album of Ms. Du’s works with the same title. It’s a terrific take. But on Thursday he sounded even more excited by the long-held tones that occasionally burst into striated, frizzy pops, and by the work’s shorter flurries of dizzying melody. Perhaps that was because he was sometimes spurred along by another of Ms. Du’s solos, “Ixtab, 10pm,” which was played simultaneously — and with similar intensity — by the bassoonist Rebekah Heller.

The larger ensemble pieces that followed this Lego-and-light show suffered only a bit by comparison. A performance of “Impeccable Quake” lacked a bit of the bite that the International Contemporary Ensemble provided on its recent recording — if only because the playing of the virtuoso guitarist Daniel Lippel was mixed too low inside the Miller. It was the only point at which the many qualities of Ms. Du’s ambitious art seemed momentarily out of balance.

Du Yun Composer Portrait
Performed on Thursday at the Miller Theater at Columbia University, Manhattan.

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