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Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble Premieres

July 24, 2008

By Mark Kanny, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 24–Even by world premiere standards, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble’s final concerts will be a special case.

Created in-house by Artistic Director Kevin Noe and his long-time friend and composer Kieren Macmillan, who sits on the group’s board, “Just Out of Reach” fills the bill. It is a one-hour theater piece designed to be presented on the group’s first trip to Europe in August.

Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble — the Theatre of Music — will present the world premiere of “Just Out of Reach” by Noe and MacMillan on Friday and Saturday evenings at City Theatre on the South Side.

Then the group flies to Scotland to perform every day, from Aug. 3 to 17, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe — the biggest, most wide open festival in the world. The ensemble will be one of 2,088 shows the Fringe will present in 247 venues this summer. The Fringe sold 1.7 million tickets in 2007.

Noe and MacMillan scoped out the Fringe last summer before getting started.

“The whole event is a labor of love,” Noe says.

He also was struck by important practicalities at the festival. There’s “a certain exploratory wackiness” he says in having 12 shows on the stage every day, but that also means there’s only 30 minutes to set up for the show and 15 minutes to get packing after. “That’s just insane.”

Time and space considerations even affected instrumentation; because a grand piano was out of the question, an electronic keyboard became a necessity. The size of the percussion setup also was limited. Noe consoled himself with composer Igor Stravinsky’s comment that “The more rules, the more your individuality comes through.”

When Noe and MacMillan began planning the Fringe show, they had 60 story options, which they finally winnowed down to two: “Sunset Boulevard,” the 1950 Billy Wilder film starring Gloria Swanson, which they put aside, and three myths of frustration.

“The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus proved to be the decisive influence for them. Sisyphus was condemned to unending futility — each day pushing a rock up a mountain that inevitably rolls back down. For Camus, going down the hill to renew the struggle was when Sisyphus could find joy.

Noe and Macmillan added two other mythological figures with their own problems — Tantalus and Narcissus — to set up the drama of the finale of “Just Out of Reach.”

As the new show developed, MacMillan found he “had music spinning in my head. I didn’t have specific melodies, just the type of music in a spot. There’s a lot of music that’s underscored, very like a film to go under dialogue.”

Noe created most of the text, including use of poems by Dana Gioia and other poets.

The composer says the repetitive nature of work led him to use strophic and theme and variations forms.

But, he says, “Come without preconceptions. We just don’t follow the rules.”

And that could be the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble’s second subtitle, after “Theatre of Music.”

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