“The understanding of art depends finally upon one's willingness to extend one's humanity and one's knowledge of human life.”
Thursday, February 4, 7:30 PM
DAI FUJIKURA (b. 1977)
- Turtle Totem for Clarinet (2019)
Anthony McGill, clarinet
ALVIN SINGLETON (b. 1940)
- Jasper Drag for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano (2000)
Anthony McGill, clarinet • Chad Hoopes, violin • Anne-Marie McDermott, piano
ELEANOR ALBERGA (b. 1949)
- “Duo” from Dancing with the Shadow for Clarinet and Piano (1990)
Anthony McGill, clarinet • Anne-Marie McDermott, piano
OLIVIER MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Space (Liminality in Line)
Music is, of course, an experience of sound, and of sound unfolding through time. But it is, too, an experience of space—and in several ways. On the most practical level, when hearing music we hear simultaneously the space in which it is being performed. At present, this has to be a remote space: the acoustic volume of the Rose Studio, recreating itself within whatever space we may be occupying as we listen. The concert takes us “there” while we remain “here.”
More metaphorically, music can take us to spaces within the imagination. The first piece on tonight’s program invites us into a Japanese garden; the last, as different as may be, is bound to make us think of the occasion of its first performance, by prisoners in alien territory, under the twin extremities of war and winter.
On a level somewhere between the metaphorical and the practical, music may seem in its nature to be traveling through space. We speak of high notes and low, of melodies that ascend or descend, of textures that hover or open out. In this evening’s compositions for small groupings, we may find one instrument going forward while another stays, or two moving in different directions. Thus counterpoint can give us a sense of space.
The Japanese garden of the short opening piece is Nagara-Zaza, in the ancient city of Otsu, adjacent to Kyoto. Created in the mid-17th century, the garden is now occasionally the venue for concerts, and Dai Fujikura wrote Turtle Totem in 2019 for performance there, by a lone clarinetist. The garden has as its central feature a small pond, a neck of which is crossed by a bridge made of just three abutting blocks of stone.
“It is believed that when one crosses the bridge,” the composer writes, “one enters the next world, the afterlife. When you cross back over the bridge, then you return to ‘this’ world. This ancient spiritual idea upon which the garden was built was fascinating to me. There are turtles in the garden. Not actual turtles, but stones which symbolize the turtle. Some are on top of each other. I read that the turtles travel between these worlds, with little turtles riding on top of them, like totems.”
Much in the music springs from these observations. The clarinet starts out right at the bottom of its register, in fluid 16th notes, sometimes fluttertongued (played with the tongue vibrating, to give the sound a buzz). From here the instrument moves into higher regions, often gaining a more melodic voice as it, metaphorically, crosses the bridge into the next world. In its final discovery of doubled notes, it perhaps finds a place settled on the bridge, between worlds.
The place recalled by the next piece is very different. This is Jasper, Texas, where in 1998 James Byrd Jr., an African American, was dragged to his death, having been chained by three white men to the back of a pick-up truck. Alvin Singleton’s Jasper Drag, composed two years later, is not what one might expect: no violence, no explicit outrage. Some echo of the murder cannot be expunged, but quietness and grace, this music finds, are the supreme answers to hatred.
Sorrow, too, is there. At the beginning of the ten-minute work, the three instruments are in their own worlds, their own spaces, the piano a cracked bell, the violin bouncing on fourths that then become a smooth third, the clarinet, when it eventually enters, in wide-stepping slow melody. This kind of line the piano takes over for a while, before the violin, in fast sixteenths, moves the music up a gear. The outcome is slow, with the violin scanning the sky in lament, proceeding towards a gyration in which the clarinet circles round its first thought, now within a wiser, sadder context. At the end, the music is at a standstill, the note A stretched across registral space.
The composer’s comment, from 20 years ago, was never more to the point than now: “Jasper Drag is meant to be a marker on the collective memory of a nation still growing.”
“Jasper Drag is meant to be a marker on the collective memory of a nation still growing.”
By Michael David Murphy
Eleanor Alberga’s composition moves again to another location, the dance stage, for this five-minute duo for clarinet and piano is drawn from music the composer wrote in 1990 for a piece by Sue Maclennan and her dance company, Dancing with the Shadow. That title pretty well describes what is going on in this segment from the score, which opens with a brief solo from the clarinet, playfully skipping, and goes into a duet based on the same ideas, but now with the piano enforcing, challenging, disrupting them, and thereby obliging the clarinet to adapt. A cheerful soliloquy is fractured and expanded into something else. When dancing with the shadow, you cannot but change.
In its modal character, Alberga’s piece leans forward to the concert finale, which is also the finale of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time: “Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus,” or “Praise to the Immortality of Jesus.” The work as a whole is a sequence of meditations on a verse from the last book of the Christian bible, Revelation, in which a great angel descends to declare “that there should be time no longer.” And perhaps the ending of time seemed very close to a composer writing music for himself and fellow inmates to perform at a prisoner-of-war camp in the winter of 1940-41.
After other expressions of the ending of time, of timelessness, Messiaen comes to this last celestial slow movement for violin and piano, in which one of his unusual scales, together with the tempo and the steady gaze on E major, take us into a wholly other space, halfway to heaven.
A brief history of concerts outside the concert hall
At this moment, nearly all of concert life has had to shift out of concert halls and onto screens. Before this year, classical music performance outside of the concert hall was sometimes billed as a highly contemporary, even provocative, practice. But for much of music history, concert halls were not the norm, and spaces we might consider surprising today were common. Take a tour through a few historical non-traditional concert venues and learn more about non-traditional chamber music performance today by reading Sarah May Robinson’s article on the topic.
Where Composers Work
Composers don’t just write for a particular performance space, they also in some sense accommodate the space where they compose. Some composers have a special piano, a dedicated studio, or even a remote retreat where they write. One notable exception, of course, is Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, composed at a German prison camp, freezing cold and far from home. His wife, Yvonne Loriod, even claimed that the guards locked Messiaen in the prison camp’s latrine to compose. Back in France, however, Messiaen had an idyllic summer home on a lake in the French alps for peace and inspiration. The other composers on today’s program typically compose at home, especially now that the pandemic keeps people from traveling. Fujikura said of his “very, very small” London apartment, “I’m not really that sad that I’m cooped up... when you’re composing you are elsewhere.”
“When you’re composing you are elsewhere.”