- IN COWEN PARK, THE BUGS BUZZ IN THE KEY OF D From left to right: Christian Pincock, Neil Welch, Natalie Mai Hall, John Teske.
Deep in the forest of Cowen Park on Saturday, an ensemble of musicians played for a small audience. There were only maybe twenty people, performers included, but in the cozy clearing surrounded by trees and fallen logs, with a stream trickling nearby and a footbridge suspended overhead, it was standing-room-only. In order to find this space, where bassist John Teske and saxophonist Neil Welch have performed for the past three years, audience members were directed via Teske’s website on a treasure hunt through the trees. “Take a left into the ravine,” we were instructed. “Enter the clearing; walk toward the wooden footbridge,” and so on.
After hiking for some time, passing staircases and hopping across creeks, we found musicians amid the foliage: two on saxophone, one with a trombone, another with a bass and a cello. As the crowd formed, Welch began a startling solo. It was an onslaught of rapid-fire notes, messy, manic, bubbling over and subsiding on repeat. Welch was absorbed, trance-like, in his sound, which first resembled the cry of an excited animal and soon dissolved into a loop of unapologetic shrieking. Finally, it petered into a slow succession of guttural blows. Though a repeating single note, the sound was not stagnant. It was set to the counterpoint of the audience slapping mosquitos against their skin, of dogs barking in response from far away, and of birds caw-cawing.
A second piece, called Swell, began with an ambient drone of cello (played by Natalie Mai Hall) and bass with a crisp alto sax (played by Evan Smith) and trombone (played by Christian Pincock) entering in waves. The piece was comprised of sustained tones held for 20 second intervals. Changes were timed by Nat Evans, who opened and closed a shruti box, a harmonium-like instrument that works on a system of bellows, to signify each transition.
What perhaps attested most to the skill level of the musicians was that they knew when to get out of the way. They incisively made room for one another, disencumbering space within what sometimes bordered on chaos. In the moments in between the plucking and blowing, there were interludes in which only the creek babbled and the forest made its noises.
Smith noticed out loud that a mosquito had hummed by his ear while he was playing. “It was buzzing in the key of D,” he observed.
The finale, titled Hungry Ghosts, was composed by Evans on commission from the Indianapolis Museum of Art. It refers to an Asian lantern festival in which the ancestor spirits come from the hungry ghost realm into the world of the living. Though there are seven movements, the musicians played only three, and though traditionally, participants in the festival would set lanterns afloat on a lake, audience members were given small white candles as darkness descended on Cowen Park. The piece began minimally with the resounding of a conch shell. The other instruments soon blended in mesmerizing, airy, eerie harmonies. The sound was open and expansive, letting the forest in, vibrating into the dusk by candlelight.