Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”
Thursday, December 3, 7:30 PM
TREVOR WESTON (b. 1967)
- Shape Shifter (The Angry Bluesman) for Cello (2011)
Mihai Marica, cello
HELEN GRIME (b. 1981)
- Aviary Sketches (after Joseph Cornell) for Violin, Viola, and Cello (2014)
Aviary (Parrot Music Box)
Toward the Blue Peninsula (for Emily Dickinson)
Arnaud Sussmann, violin • Matthew Lipman, viola • David Finckel, cello
ZOSHA DI CASTRI (b. 1985)
Transitions (Endurance and Evolution)
This is a program about transition, about change – about how some things will endure through a period of change, while others evolve. That implies a starting point, from which transition will proceed, and in Trevor Weston’s Shape Shifter of 2011 there are at least two of these. One is the “angry bluesman” of the subtitle, the itinerant musician expressing anger as lament. Blues traits – flattened thirds, slides, syncopations that weigh on the rhythm, repeating elements that dog the line – surface more and more through the ten-minute piece. Foot stamps are there from the start, part of the bluesman’s repertory of techniques, at once extinguishing the music and getting it going again. But these are also vivid expressions of Weston’s other main starting point, his “intention of writing a piece for solo cello from a machine’s point of view,” which for him entailed the “juxtaposition of contrasting musical ideas.”
Repetition comes from the machine aesthetic as well as from the blues. However, this repetition is by no means wholly mechanical, for – and here the main title comes into play – the shapes the machine comes up with are constantly shifting. Also, these small-scale processes of transformation generate the impetus for the bigger jumps from one motif to another. A motif may be as little as one note (the cello’s bottom C, sounded vigorously by itself in the early stages, later as the root of arpeggios) or two (the open fifth of the instrument’s top strings, D and A). Or it may be the energetic squiggle that sets the piece in motion and that, in its memory, endures.
The British composer Helen Grime wrote her string trio Aviary Sketches in 2014 to a CMS commission, and this evening’s musicians gave the U.S. première the following year. Grime aptly chose a New York topic: the artist Joseph Cornell, who spent his entire adult life in the city, and the boxes for which he is celebrated, several of them now in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim. Each of the trio's five movements, Grime tells us, "takes its starting point and character" from a particular box, so here we have transitions from the visual to the aural domain.
It is not always totally clear which box the composer had in mind, since Cornell used the terms "habitat," "aviary," and "forgotten game" more than once. His habitats, however, were always also aviaries, each containing a cut-out printed image of a bird, or more than one. Grime accordingly cuts out a reference to Ravel's avian piano piece "Oiseaux tristes" for her first movement, and uses it for both slow melody and rotating chirps. The instruments come and go as they participate in one or the other.
The second movement is mechanical, as parrots often are. Again it puts forward a contrast, between regular repetition (violin and viola) and a continuous line played pizzicato, this also being, but less ostentatiously, repetitive (cello). Out of that contrast comes growth, evolution.
In the third movement, the melody at first is the viola's. The other two instruments noisily interrupt, but then, in another evolution, join with the viola. Finally, though, the viola is alone again. Here we can be certain of the Cornell prototype, an unusually bare and empty box that Charles Simic described in one of his Cornell poems: "There’s only the perch left, a dropped / feather, a watch spring, and a crack."
A further contrast (and a further development) pits harmonics against brusque interventions in the "forgotten game" of the fourth movement.
The finale, marked "Still," transposes the atmosphere of a box Cornell dedicated to his favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, remembering her lines: "It might be easier / To fail – with Land in Sight – / Than gain – my Blue Peninsula –." In Cornell's miniature interior, mostly white, a window giving onto sea and sky is closed off by caging. Once more, Grime creates an evolving dialogue, of muted chorale with busier bursts.
Lastly, from Zosha Di Castri, Canadian-born but now thoroughly a New Yorker, we have Sprung Testament for violin and piano, which she composed in 2017-18 to a commission from Jennifer Koh. Under the terms of that commission, Di Castri had to write a piece she could perform with Koh, which might partly explain why the piano part is exploratory: adhesive tape and gum are applied to some of the strings for the first movement (to be removed afterwards), and the pianist also has a flexatone and vibraslap to hand. Koh made a second request, for a piece that would take off from Beethoven's "Spring" Sonata. From that point, Di Castri went to the "Heiligenstadt Testament," which Beethoven drafted a year or so after this sonata, in 1802, "describing his despair over his hearing troubles," as Di Castri puts it, "and his passionate resolve to overcome his physical and emotional issues to fulfill his artistic aspirations." Hence her title.
Sprung Testament is, then, music emerging from music, and from a crucial moment in the life of the composer responsible for that music. Further impulses came from a book of photomicrographs by Rose-Lynn Fisher, of tears spread between glass slides - images, to quote Di Castri again, "weirdly delicate, poetically complex, and intimate."
Di Castri takes titles for her three movements from Fisher, but these titles are intended for the performers alone. The movements are, she writes, “based roughly on the proportions and sentiments of the Beethoven,” and though there is a lot packed into that word “roughly,” we are faced with a big, ranging opener followed by two shorter movements, slow and fast. All three movements contain startling peaks, arriving quickly and then more variously in the first, but in all three the destination is transcendence.
This is a program about transition, about change – about how some things will endure through a period of change, while others evolve.
Joseph Cornell assemblage boxes
Joseph Cornell was a somewhat reclusive surrealist artist who lived in Queens with his mother and brother for most of his life. Helen Grime writes, “Cornell was especially known for his assemblage boxes, and what interests me about them is his ability to create miniature worlds. They are immediate and alluring, but also rich in associations.” The five movements of her piece Aviary Sketches (After Joseph Cornell) are each inspired by one of Cornell’s assemblage boxes, including Deserted Perch and Toward the Blue Peninsula.
“O you men who think I am hostile, stubborn or misanthropic… O how harshly I was repulsed by the doubly sad experience of my bad hearing, and yet it was impossible for me to say to men speak louder, shout, for I am deaf. Ah how could I possibly admit such a disability in the one sense which should have been more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in highest perfection… for me there can be no relaxation with company, refined conversation, mutual exchange of thought, only just as little as is required by the highest necessity may I mix with society, I must live like an exile…”
–Beethoven, Heiligenstadt, October 6, 1802
Zosha Di Castri on Topography of Tears
I was immediately drawn to [Rose-Lynn Fisher’s] duotone microscopic photographs of tears captured on glass slides. These images reminded me of macro-topographic shots of sprawling landscapes, yet were also weirdly delicate, poetically complex, and intimate. In her book, Fisher gives captions to each image, translating the visuals into something evocative of our interior lives.
-Zosha Di Castri
Zosha Di Castri at work in her office
Stream New Milestones: Transitions (Endurance and Evolution)
Watch the full program of New Milestones: Transitions (Endurance and Evolution). Streaming for free December 3-10.