Thursday, October 28, 2021, 7:30 PM
The Boundary, reading by Everest Zhao in English and Bei Dao in Chinese
Marcos Balter on virtuosic listening
MARCOS BALTER (b. 1974)
Shih-Hui Chen on a sense of belonging
SHIH-HUI CHEN (b. 1962)
George Lewis on impure human/material hybrids
GEORGE LEWIS (b. 1952)
Alexandre Lunsqui on imagining his son
ALEXANDRE LUNSQUI (b. 1969)
Nina Shekhar on unexpected rhythm
NINA SHEKHAR (b. 1995)
I want to go to the other bank
The river water alters the sky's colour
and alters me
I am in the current
my shadow stands by the river bank
like a tree struck by lightning
I want to go to the other bank
In the trees on the other bank
a solitary startled wood pigeon
flies towards me
By Bei Dao, translated by Bonnie S. McDougall, from
THE AUGUST SLEEPWALKER, copyright ©1988 by Bei Dao,
Translation copyright © 1988, 1990 by Bonnie S. McDougall.
Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
Chamber music is maybe always about how different instruments can join, but never more so than now (if we can extend that “now” back a decade or two), in a world where boundaries in all manner of things are becoming unclear, edges fuzzy.
Born: Rio de Janeiro, 1974
Distinctions between instruments can be brought to vanishing point, as they are in Marcos Balter’s delete/control/option. Even that title confounds categories in giving a flavor of digital operations to music subtly balancing two machines from another age, alto flute and cello—and requiring, for that balance, exquisite control and sensitive listening on the part of two human beings. The instruments may almost cover each other, as at the opening, like two lace curtains fluttering at a window. Or again, a sound, a high harmonic, may travel imperceptibly from one to the other. Metal and wood identify themselves, but also amalgamate.
We can only observe, too, how differences of geography and culture are dissolving all through this program. Three of the composers were born and brought up elsewhere: in Brazil (Marcos Balter and Alexandre Lunsqui), in Taiwan (Shih-Hui Chen). All have spent time—often a long time—teaching or studying in the U. S. Where does their music then belong? Here and everywhere.
Born: Taipei, 1962
If Shih-Hui Chen makes a point of her separate allegiances, she realizes her music confounds them. “One aspect of music that fascinates me,” she writes of this evening’s piece, “is how tension and drama can be created by contrasting the effects of familiarity and dissimilarity found in my musical materials. Bridging this dichotomy between continuity and discontinuity parallels my attempt to integrate the two sound worlds of East and West. The title Returnings also refers to my personal story—my own returning to two places I have called home, Taipei and Boston.”
Alto flute and cello—these instruments again—we may feel at the start to be bearers of dissimilar musical genes, but they soon begin to behave similarly and even to echo one another, with the percussionist on vibraphone perhaps as go-between. Also, this is music before it is metaphor. The returnings the instruments make are to charmed notes and figures, their choices changing as the piece proceeds. At the end, they are far apart—the cello drawn to its bottom note, the alto flute to its top. But they are together.
The Mangle of Practice
Born: Chicago, 1952
George Lewis puts forward a different twosome—violin and piano—and gives them very distinct characters. They owe those characters, however, to each other, rather as the human, say, is importantly defined in contradiction to the mechanical, and vice versa. Lewis takes his title from a book by the British scholar Andrew Pickering, the mangle (U. S. “wringer”) being Pickering’s deliberately humdrum image for the practice of science, which he sees as a confrontation of human agency (research) with material agency (the behavior of the world).
“In both the sound and the form of this piece,” Lewis writes, “I attempt to present a sense of what Pickering calls ‘irrevocably impure human/material hybrids’ that evince their origins in processes of mangling as part of the more broadly constituted human (and even posthuman) condition.” Violin and piano are, one might say, both put through the mangle constituted by the design, intention, and energy of the composition. This may cram them together, often by way of non-standard playing techniques. Equally, it may squeeze them apart. One may also, from time to time, feel one is hearing the mangle itself.
Topografia Index 3A
Born: São Paulo, 1969
We return to sonic geography in Alexandre Lunsqui’s piece, in a more literal manner than in Shih-Hui Chen’s (but then, the opposition of literal with metaphorical is perhaps another to be questioned). “I began composing the Topografia cycle,” Lunsqui recalls, “when traveling to a small village in the hills of Minas Gerais, in the south-east of Brazil. The idea was to create a sonic map of the region (either of real features that I was witnessing as a traveler, or of imaginary ones). In order to do that, I created a sort of grid that provides the sensation of continuity and regularity. Therefore, the repeated notes that are present throughout most of the piece are like the lines on graph paper. The features of the landscape are then represented by a variety of musical ideas: rhythmic and melodic gestures, outbursts of sounds, empty spaces, etc.”
As a scientific project, Topografia 3A is wonderfully subject to the mangle of practice. The “graph paper” is not at all a neutral background but brings in, rather, the quick pulsations we might hear, or expect to hear, in the indigenous music of Minas Gerais. At the same time, the instruments—bass flute (pitched a fifth below the alto), bass clarinet and percussion (mostly unpitched)—are similarly evocative, as are the instrumentalists’ vocalizations. Again, we are in hazy borderlands, between voice and instrument, creation and replication, science and art. The work may also remind us we are not separate from the whole world of things and experiences. This is not a human observer reporting on the world; this is the world reporting on itself.
Born: Detroit, 1995
Glitch. Yes, it will never do so accurately. Nina Shekhar’s piece with this title is, she writes, “a playful take on a record player skipping when playing a track, causing portions to loop unevenly or to be jumped over entirely. While this experience may be frustrating when it happens, it also recontextualizes the material from the existing track, creating a unique listening experience with the same sounds. Using off-kilter and “screwed up” grooves and glitchy ostinato patterns, the piece attempts to portray this sonic phenomenon to take the performers and listeners on a playful, fun, and wild ride.”
Scored for the ensemble of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, Glitch thus has a very different atmosphere. Right from its first entry, the piano has a lick it takes all over the place before shaking it off, to have it restored later by the cello. In the meantime, Shekhar seems to be reflecting on her Indian heritage – or is she reflecting, rather, on a Scheherazade-style western view of Asia? At the end, everything dissolves into memory—which leaves us with yet another uncertain duality, that of listening now and remembering.
The Quiet Virtuosity of Extended Techniques (I)
In his program note to delete/control/option, Marcos Balter describes the “quiet virtuosity” that the musicians must use to create the “fragile, meditative surface” he imagines. The humble virtuosity of extended instrumental techniques can be heard in much music written in the 20th and 21st centuries. Composers routinely ask for sounds that require players to go against the grain of standard technical procedure, doing things that might not look like the sparkling virtuosity of a Paganini Caprice, but require the same kind of intense, athletic control of the instrument. But what exactly are these techniques, how do they differ from the standard ones, and why are they difficult to execute?
This flipbook, the first in a series on extended instrumental techniques, will discuss an approach to string bowing that appears frequently in George Lewis’s The Mangle of Practice. The overpressure sound, or scratch tone, is an emotionally evocative and intense noise that occurs in many contemporary works. It is not unlike the squawk that all young students of string instruments produce when they press down on the strings too hard with the bow—but creating a consistent scratch tone and implementing it with musical intention should rightly be considered quite virtuosic.