I hardly know where to begin a review of Ben Van Winkle and the Figment Chamber Ensemble’s concert on March 16, 2019 at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre. FCE is a group of 13 musicians of varied background. The complexity of creating and producing a concert like this virtually requires the individual evaluation of the component parts. So, first…
THE INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC: All of the music presented at this concert was composed by BVW. I say composed, but not really…, because it seems to lack the formality of “composition” and instead feels (because this music is truly visceral) more like a vision, dream, or psychedelic outpouring, that has been notated by a magician. The music has been created from an imagination so fertile that it is, perhaps, best described as being an entirely new musical genre.
Think fusion of, say, Phillip Glass, Eric Satie and John Cage, with rhythmic elements of Igor Stravinsky…, but not really. Polyrhythmic and polytonal elements abound. Motives become altered within a few repetitions to include quirky atonalities or rhythmic divergences that completely change the character of the music. Waves of sound are created that break up into jagged bits of percussive elements. The full ensemble frequently dies away to one or a few instruments, then surges back to full ensemble, which barrels towards a final cadence. Loud and soft, long and short, warm and cool, tonal and atonal, lyricism and percussiveness, randomness and unity are masterfully interwoven to keep the listener enthralled. Magic!
THE ENSEMBLE: The unusual ensemble of instruments (string quartet plus bass, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, piccolo, marimba plus a variety of other percussion, guitar, hammered dulcimer[!]) is called on to provide an enormous range of textures and colors. I don’t know how this group was assembled, but they are superb! Playing without a conductor, they seemingly effortlessly create a blanket of sound that surrounds the audience and demands its attention to the music from the first note to the last. The group plays with great intensity and delicacy as required, creating subtle shifts in volume that make crescendos and diminuendos appear almost as surprises. They play as if they are all connected to the same brain witha precision of pitch and rhythm that are hallmarks of the best well-known professional ensembles. They visibly enjoy what they are doing and compel the audience to participate in their joy. Magic!
THE SOLO SONGS: Featuring BVW as the vocalist, these songs are enormously entertaining creations. Again, in an effort to describe them, they are reminiscent of what might result from an skull session with Bo Burnham, Franz Schubert, and Queen, but not really… BVW is a remarkable lyricist as well as composer, and these songs are certainly testaments to his skill.
Backed-up by the ensemble, Ben accompanies himself on cello in a unique style. Furiously bowing, strumming, plucking, thumping, the instrument, he exhibits everything from metal rock lead man to sensitive naïve ingénue in both his playing and singing. His lyrics are extraordinarily compelling tropes on universal and timeless interests of humankind – love, sex, joy, etc. – to train of thought expressions of mundane events in life, like discovery of an imaginary road “buddy” in another car whom you bond with because his driving style matches yours as you mindlessly drive down the road.
Texts are often rapid-fire patter songs, and my only complaint is that they were not presented in print, because I’m certain I missed out on some really creative moments! BVW creates not so much memorable melodies, but tone poems around the texts in such a manner that the listener is both drawn into the mood of the text and completely amazed by the hubris of the music. Soaring vocal lines are easily handled by Ben, and his wit, energy, and personality shine through every song. Magic!
SUMMARY: I’m an old, jaded musician who never expects to be surprised in a performance and am seldom challenged in that expectation. However, the novelty, creativity, and joy of music this young man creates overwhelms me. He is truly a polymath – composer, lyricist, singer, cellist, guitarist, dancer(!) — and, perhaps, even the word genius applies here! It’s hard for me to express my appreciation for the enormity of his talent, and I hope never to miss one of his performances!
Music or magic? Uncertain, I’m leaning strongly toward magic right now. I don’t know if Ben, a la Faust, sold his soul to the devil, but he’s clearly got the gifts to make a tremendous contribution to music and I wish him every success.