Jessi Harvey Strings Together ‘Things That Break’

A Seattle composer’s ambitious cross-genre collaboration has potential but isn’t quite there yet
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The “murmuring marimba” during a rehearsal of Jessi Harvey’s ‘Things That Break’

If you described Things That Break, Friday night at the Chapel Performance Space in Wallingford, as a new-music concert, an avant-cabaret, a collaborative chamber opera and a theatrical happening, you’d be right four times and wrong four times. Interspersed among instrumental and vocal works by Seattle composer Jessi Harvey were contributions by three other invited artists: Becky Joy Aitken’s brief animations, four precious and faux-naif variations on the Humpty Dumpty tale; Sonya Harris’ audio interviews with people on their personal breakages (in many senses of the word) combined with her projected photographs; and Aimee Hong’s poetry and audience-participation activities, the most affecting of which asked us to tell anonymously of personal obstacles recently overcome. (She also led a round of MadLibs that was not an ideal use of our time.)

Most of the evening’s first half comprised The Vision Cow Returns, Harvey’s eight-movement suite for soprano and seven instruments. Full of surprises and consistently attention-holding, it offered two particularly memorable moments. One set up a steady pulse on the bass flute and trumpet, asking the players to blow onto, rather than into, their instruments’ mouthpieces; underneath this, a murmuring marimba accompanied an expressive cello melody. The other was a chaotic free-for-all for the whole ensemble set against a projected photo of sun breaking (that word again) through tree branches, placing image and sound in ecstatic symbiosis. Right after intermission came the evening’s strongest piece, Harvey’s solo piano work Song for a Harbor, which asks the pianist, here Bathsheba Marcus, to grab fistfuls of notes to build craggy, overarching melodic outlines.

The whole multimedia event was definitely a young artist’s work, self-conscious of its own iconoclasm in a way that, just a bit, got between the art and the audience. (It’s a tendency most every artist needs to work through in order to discover that there really never were any icons that required clasming in the first place.) As a gathering of artists in disparate disciplines, setting up their individual works to see how they bounce off each other, Things That Break is the sort of presentation that with some refining could prove beneficial, not to mention just plain fun, for Seattle art makers and consumers alike.

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