The “sinfonietta” tag on Soundcloud.com doesn’t get a lot of love. At this moment, the tag brings up just one track, but it’s a doozy. “Sinfonietta” is one of a half dozen tags selected by Alarm Will Sound, the adventurous chamber ensemble, in association with a recording of their performance of the composition “Step!” The piece of music, by Liza White, was taped last summer at Mizzou New Music Summer Festival, and is heard here in a crisp five and a quarter minutes. It opens with suspended strings and arhythmic accents from horns and percussion, before the crux of it hits: a hard, almost robotic, ever surprising shuffle. (For the record, this is a website where “robotic” is a compliment.) The strings and horns are extensions of, compatriots of, the drums, the whole thing syncopated like Leonard Bernstein or Alex North at their most rhythmically vibrant and succinct.
According to composer White, who participated in a discussion about the festival at alarmwillsound.com, the jazz feel is deserved from step routines:
The musical material in this piece is derived from step team routines, which use combinations of stomping, clapping, speech, and patting different parts of the body in a choreographed way to execute collective rhythm. Step is related to hip-hop, which I’ve always been interested in. The piece is also about race relations the way I’ve experienced them. So its use of step routine material is both a musical influence and an extramusical one.The step routine, filtered through jazz tradition, then funneled through chamber instrumentation, arrives at the ear with an ecstatically herky jerky feel. The result suggests the way jazz has been sampled by turntablists and other breakbeat musicians, bits and riffs cut up and reassembled with an intense verve. The image up top, from coverage of the festival at newmusicbox.org, shows White rehearsing with the group.
Update (2012.03.21): The JACK Quartet is due to do a public reading of a new piece by White at Northwestern this spring. That is, it will be a live performance, just not a fully rehearsed one. White will post details at her lizawhitemusic.com site as the event comes approaches.