In geology, diagenesis describes “the physical and chemical changes occurring during the conversion of sediment to rock.” It’s an apt description for former Helenans Heather Barnes, soprano, and Jennifer Bewerse, cello. They are purveyors of “modern classical music,” throwing out accepted musical concepts to create something new.
On their debut album, the pair smash the traditional constructs of rhythm, harmony, melody, and phrasing and morph the shards into new sounds. They have also introduced the genre to children, encouraging them to make their own instruments and write their own pieces.
The two classically trained performers, who met at a contemporary music conference in 2010, clicked when they realized they both chafed at the restrictions of traditional music. So they started working together. Modern classical music is uncharted territory, they say. And complicated, yet varied. You can break the rules, and as Bewerse notes, “for performers, the rule-breaking is often about technique.”
Because they have mastered their respective instruments, that comes easily. Bewerse can decide how to hold her bow “wrong” to achieve a certain crunchy sound, for example, or Barnes must suddenly change register in a composition, or sing microtones, those “between-notes” smaller than half-tones. The fun is in figuring out how to do this, because there aren’t years of tradition showing one how.
Several of the pieces they’ve commissioned appear on the album. “In the Lodi Gardens,” from Hands and Lips of Wind, was written by Mischa Salkind-Pearl. Bewerse’s sustained low cello growl opens, then Barnes’ powerful, full-throated soprano abruptly springs up high on the lyrics. It’s haunting.
“Marche Funebre,” by Stephen Lewis, is riveting and visceral. Barnes hisses as Bewerse plays short, sharp double-stops, dissonant and foreboding. Barnes’ voice quivers as she takes heavy breaths and makes whooshing sounds. There’s more hissing, and wiggly bow-sliding noises, then a double-stop minor chord, then, what? Ambulance sounds? A car-horn noise? Softly, Barnes repeats a plaintive “Gone … gone.”
Astounding, and chilling. Here’s a chance to visit musicians at the top of their craft, playing what they love.
The two recently parted ways – Barnes to China, where her husband is working, and Bewerse to Los Angeles. They are looking forward to new and exciting collaborations, made possible from afar by modern communication.
– Mariss McTucker