Kate Soper’s work, like that of so many other artists, was disrupted by the pandemic. But she weathered the moment with the same creative ingenuity she has brought to her music and dramatic projects in the past.
When her hotly anticipated opera “The Romance of the Rose,” originally scheduled for April 2020, was canceled, Soper began to post spare yet smartly filmed excerpts online. And though the world premiere date for “Rose” still isn’t known, she has pressed forward on multiple fronts. Soper released an excellent album — “The Understanding of All Things” — while also sharing selections from “HARK,” a new play, on YouTube.
She also contributed a work of short fiction, “ClearVoice,” to McSweeney’s for an “audio issue” of the literary journal last year. (That’s also available as a series of videos online, though fans should spring for the deluxe, print-plus-audio version that better suits her story’s witty-then-philosophical sendup of software installation manuals and commercial uses of classical music.)
But now it’s 2022, and live performance is again the norm. What about a return to ambitious dramatic works onstage for Soper? The program for the season-opening concert from Wet Ink Ensemble — the pathbreaking group in which Soper plays a crucial role — held out precisely this promise. Presented by the ensemble at Roulette on Wednesday, the evening included the world premiere of Soper’s “HEX,” advertised as a “dramatic satire in which a new music ensemble inadvertently opens the gates of Hell.”
“HEX,” though, ultimately proved to be a trifle. The 19-minute piece — really just an extended comedic sketch — starts in media res, with multiple classical pianists taking turns in the execution of a conceptual-art stunt. They must repeat a single, foreboding (and supposedly medieval) musical figure some 78,000 times, after which, it’s said, the Devil will be summoned.
But this enticing setup drags on with little musical development. Eventually, the Devil — played with subtle menace by Rick Burkhardt — duly makes his appearance. He takes his turn at the piano, bringing with him some welcome musical embellishment of the oft-repeated material. But just as things are getting interesting, the curtain falls.
In Soper’s script, the mortal musicians’ conceit is presented as a lazy effort from a group of busy artists who are having trouble making their schedules align. (They also need something suitably “flashy” yet easy to produce for a grant proposal.) This was self-awareness that sliced close to the bone, and that seemed to explain why Soper was the only member of Wet Ink performing on Wednesday.
Supporting her, instead, was the chamber group Orlando Furioso, led by the Chilean drummer-composer Vicente H. Atria. These virtuosic musicians were the (ghostly) players onstage who were charged with responding vividly — if too briefly — to impromptu variations on the repetitive pianistic motif.
In addition to bringing stray sparks of vibrancy to “HEX,” Atria’s group also helped to save the concert — and to make it, on balance, a success — with its own 40-minute set, which marked the release of its new, self-titled album on the Aguirre label.
Making liberal use of microtonal harmony and hypnotic, ostinato rhythms — as well as the occasional stylistic smash-cut, reminiscent of John Zorn — Orlando Furioso announced itself on Wednesday as a punchy, creative force on the New York scene. The high point of its set was “Raso, Sarga, Tafetán,” an 11-minute composition by Atria. After the performance, he described it from the stage as a study in layered patterns; that was hardly necessary, however, since the piece’s swinging, sinuous interplay had spoken for itself.
In the early going, this work provided a delirious blend of material for the keyboardist Andrew Boudreau, the cellist Daniel Hass, the trumpeter David Acevedo and the woodwind specialist David Leon (who doubled on clarinet and saxophones throughout the concert).
Atria’s rhythms had a welcoming, social propulsion, and the microtonality of his writing for keyboard proposed an individual — even insular — language. (Boudreau played on a synth setup that mimicked an atypically tuned harpsichord.) Atria’s other works on the program hit with a similar specificity, including the driving “Bootstrap Bernie”; and Soper guested with the group, too, lending crisply beaming vocals to the piece “En Tornasol.”
Give credit where it’s due to Wet Ink Ensemble. Even when it couldn’t assemble for a focused display of its own prowess, the group was able to help shine a light on up-and-coming artists. On Wednesday, that was plenty — even revelatory.
Kate Soper and Orlando Furioso
Performed on Wednesday at Roulette, Brooklyn.