Composer Diana McIntosh revels in media collages

She's an unassuming performer from Winnipeg, Manitoba. If you ran into her on the street, you might pigeonhole her as a teacher, or maybe a librarian. You would never suspect that Diana McIntosh is an adventurous, original, serious, and yet often fiendishly funny contemporary composer and performer. A member of several Canadian composers' associations and recipient of two grants from the Manitoba Arts Council and the Canada Council, Ms. McIntosh has made three previous appearances in New York -- two of them solo concerts in Carnegie Recital Hall. Her recent concert here at Merkin Hall was a thoroughly absorbing display of her various talents as composer, pianist, and much more.

McIntosh, who eschews the word avant-garde, is actually a multimedia artist who combines music, video, electronic tapes, mouth sounds, dialogue, and movement into a collage of riveting aural and visual experiences.

Gimmicky, you say? Well, some of her paraphernalia could be classified as such (for instance, a potholder on a chain, which she uses to elicit a cymbal-like sound from the piano strings), but her use of these things is intelligent and always germane to the works themselves.

Her opening piece, ``Doubletalk,'' was a duet for mouth and voice sounds, live and on tape. Her live clucking, roaring, hissing, cheek punching, mouth cork popping, ahhhhing, glugging, jabbering, and shhhh-ing created a conversational give-and-take with the electronic sounds (some human, some not-so-human) of the tape that was at once playful and artfully constructed.

In a complete shift of moods, she moved into the next piece, ``Music at the Center.'' This involved color slides of various shells (by Vivian Sturdee) projected on a large screen, McIntosh at the piano (with bamboo and shell wind chimes, mallets for the piano strings, and temple blocks), James Campbell on clarinet, and fellow composer Ann Southam reading from Wordsworth's ``Tintern Abbey'' on tape. It's a work based on the beauty of nature and the ever-expanding quality of creation represented in the spiral forms of the shells and reflected in the augmenting intervals of the music. In performance, the piece transcended its intellectual concepts, leaving at least this listener with the harmony of the mood it created.

``Eliptosonics'' is a wildly funny slur on the more pretentious side of so-called avant-garde music. McIntosh steps out on stage and begins a deadpan explanation of the piece she's about to play. Before she's very far into her exposition, it's clear that the whole thing is a highly convoluted, absurdly intellectual, absolutely nonsensical bag of hot air. (Example: ``Mistakes are beside the point. Once anything happens, it authentically is.'') When she's through talking, she simply walks off stage, and the piece never gets played.

But wait, there's more. We then get a slide replay of the whole thing, except this time a crazed McIntosh dressed in a lab coat is agonizing over her piano, buried in manuscript paper, and the accompanying explanation is garbled by tape manipulation to the point of utter gobbledygook.

Fun? You bet, and a needed, albeit congenial dig at superficial intellectualism in modern music.

McIntosh's use of the piano is total. How much can one person get out of a piano? More than most of us have ever thought about, and McIntosh makes the piano live up to its definition as both a stringed and a percussion instrument. She gets a plucked sound by muting the strings with one hand, and she plays the strings -- very musically -- with mallets. She even uses the inside of the case as a drum, drawing on the rich overtones of the instrument.

Multimedia performance is a natural outgrowth of the age, and McIntosh is one of its important voices. Watch for her.

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