CHRISTOPHER CERRONE (b. 1984)
Shall I Project a World? for Violin (2015)
Kristin Lee, violin
HANNAH KENDALL (b. 1984)
CARLOS SÁNCHEZ-GUTIÉRREZ (b. 1964)
GITY RAZAZ (b. 1986)
Shadow Lines for Cello, Pre-Recorded Cello, and Electronics (2014)
Mihai Marica, cello
MISATO MOCHIZUKI (b. 1969)
ZOSHA DI CASTRI (b. 1985)
Hypha: Five Miniatures for Suzanne Simard for Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano/Keyboard (CMS Commission, World Premiere) (2022)
Alexander Fiterstein, clarinet, Kristin Lee, violin, Mihai Marica, cello, Mika Sasaki, piano
by Paul Griffiths
For over a century—at least since The Rite of Spring hit the world, in 1913—music has been bringing us the strict pulse, the gearing of speeds, and the repetitive action of physical machinery, all expressed as sound running through time. Musical machines now will often be softer, playing across the boundary between the living and the mechanical as those categories come to seem ever less antithetical.
Christopher Cerrone’s five-minute violin solo Shall I Project a World? is the gentlest of machines, though in its light touch exact and even intensive. From a repeating high A, the performer builds a quivering motif, one that goes down through a triad and then back up again a step. As this keeps revolving, the lower register is awakened, and notes there go progressively down, until we are just half a step from the precipice of impossibility—i.e., at the A flat above the violin’s bottom G. At that point, the piece suddenly spins back to its opening, the revolving motif is set up another way, and the violinist starts to reach for the sky, very high and higher still, up to the A two octaves above the starting point.
The title question is asked by Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. “In the story,” Cerrone explains, “Oedipa finds herself on a long and quixotic journey in search of the details needed to settle her recently deceased husband’s estate. However, every time she discovers some clue, it reveals a more complex and kaleidoscopic situation than she imagined. At some point, she wonders if all the strange things that have happened to her were simply a product of her imagination. I was struck by this notion, the idea of someone digging deeper and deeper, only to find more depth, and I tried to channel that in my work.”
Hannah Kendall’s Vera flows on from here by virtue of an entirely coincidental closeness of material. Not only do we hear a lone violin again, but the first notes—a rising gesture, A–B–E—echo those strongly featured in the Christopher Cerrone piece. This is, though, immediately a different world. The sounds are all pizzicato, as they are when cello and viola join the violin, and the rhythm is irregular: pulsed but in constantly shifting patterns. With rhythm of this kind, the notes cheerfully shake hands with traditions beyond the western classical, for there is a strong pentatonic feel for a while; even afterwards, everything is still on “white” notes (i.e., notes that would be white on a piano keyboard). Kendall informs us that the music is based on a twelve-tone row from which the “black” notes have been removed; but of course this is an unspoken undermining of the entire Schoenbergian principle—besides which, even the seven notes that remain do not appear in any recognizable ordering. Instead, they sprinkle along. In pitch as in rhythm, there is no stable pattern but rather a happy randomness circumscribed only by the restriction of pitch material to those seven “white” notes and of rhythmic units (with rare exceptions) to eighth notes that are either on or off the quarter-note beat.
Eventually, the string players take up their bows for more sustained sounds, whose arrival seems to make it possible for the clarinet to come in. There is then another shift when held chords completely take over and, at the same time, the harmony darkens as the excluded “black” notes make their return.
▶ Other possibilities are entertained, involving jittery repetitions that bring an element of machine music to the surface.The final section repeats the first, but now with the clarinet involved.
Machines made of rhythm and motif are on display throughout the set of Trio-Variations for flute, clarinet, and piano by Carlos Sánchez-Gutiérrez, who takes his central image from Paul Klee. “I have always felt attracted,” he writes, “to what Klee could have called ‘twittering machines’: the unpredictable mechanisms whose systematic—yet imperfect—behavior is not unlike the ‘processes’ we often find in musical structures. I love to observe clockworks with missing or erratic parts; or a spider who laboriously tries to climb a wall, or one of those precarious robots built by Rodney Brooks, whose ‘function’ is not to fulfill a task but, simply, to exist. They are all twittering machines whose image, interestingly enough, often ignites my musical imagination. My ‘twittering machines,’ as expressed in this set, are an uninterrupted chain of short variations: tangible, yet always imperfect, musical mechanisms.”
The first few measures offer not so much a theme as a seed, a bunch of compacted principles that will sprout variously and vigorously as the piece goes on: grace notes sparking up to a long note, a line moving in narrow intervals, rotating patterns, these collapsing into a trill. The eleventh variation reprises the first part of this opening, and is followed by variations featuring bass clarinet, then high flute. Towards the end, the variations seem to be running out of steam—but that does not go for the last of them.
Mimicking aspects of life, in many ways exceeding us, machines provoke anxieties that perhaps we try to allay by making them objects of comedy. Precision musical engineering here produces machines that are unsettling and amusing—and brilliant in their operation.
But what if a machine were not just to be evoked by the music but take part in it? This is again a possibility with a long history, going back almost a century to when the first electronic musical instruments were built and including all kinds of live-electronic interactions since. For example: Shadow Lines, by Gity Razaz. Onstage is a solitary cellist, from whom we might expect music of solitariness. However, something else is going on. There is a shining mist of electronic sound, and the player’s opening gesture is being repeated before it is over, thanks to a delay system.
The echoes—the shadow lines—go on, and they shadow, too, the music of another time, or perhaps another place. That first gesture, a slide down a chromatic step, could have come from almost anywhere, but certainly from the country of the composer’s family: Iran. It is repeated in different contexts, and other elements also recur, as if in search for a lost melody. Drones enter to enhance the sense of an ancient music, and the search goes into higher registers, at which point a more distinct shadow appears: a pre-recorded cello playing along with the soloist.
We are only about four minutes into the ten-minute piece when another change takes place, one that on this program may almost be expected but that is brought about in a new way, by means of recorded loops.
▶The cellos, live and recorded, are drawn into looping figures, but, looking back to what went before, they seek a way out—if possible, together.
One aspect of music that acts like a machine is that it neatly answers the question of what must come next: the same as before. That will be a perilous situation for music that wants to live, as all the music in this concert very much wants to—and does. Perhaps Misato Mochizuki expresses this danger of the mechanical in her Intermezzi I for flute and piano.
This was the beginning of a series that now has six members, the others being for koto, solo percussion, clarinet and piano, viola and accordion, and cello. Each is a response to the question of what kind of formal unity can be achieved by a sequence of fragments—in the case of Intermezzi I, seven, of which the fourth bumps up against mechanical repetition, which we might hope from what follows is then overcome. Both the flutist and the pianist use expanded playing techniques, which include for the latter, towards the end of the piece, stroking the strings of the instrument with rubber tubes. It may be that in this wilder world of sound, disparate events will more satisfactorily cohere.
The question, however, remains open. The players occasionally mouth words taken from Roland Barthes’s writings on the concept of the fragment; whole sentences are quoted by the composer in her program note, including the following:
- “What does it mean to have a sequence exclusively consisting of interruptions?”*
- “The fragments are like boulders lined up on the circumference of the circle: I lay myself out all around, my little universe is all piecework, and at the center: what?”
The new piece by Zosha Di Castri, Hypha, takes its name from a fungal or bacterial thread of the kind that conveys, through the soil, water, nutrients, and information linking plants, including trees; they are the constituents of the “wood-wide web.” The work’s subtitle, “Five Miniatures for Suzanne Simard,” recognizes the work of the Canadian forest ecologist and author of Finding the Mother Tree.
Playing for around sixteen minutes, Hypha expands its sound world by means encountered in the two last pieces but now on a larger scale: extended playing techniques (including vocalization) and an electronic adjunct (in this case a MIDI keyboard giving access to detuned Steinway sounds and, in the third movement, other sound files). The five alliteratively titled movements take off from qualities we may feel to be possessed by hyphae: rustling, restless, reflective and rolling (two joined slow sections), and return. Of course, these are also qualities that music can achieve—and here does.
Hyphae, Di Castri intuits, are machines of a sort. They process. They observe. Perhaps they even count. At the same time, the music seems to be reporting on, engaging with, a kind of mentality: agile, unfettered by consciousness, unceasing, unobtruding, at once alien and necessary.
Paul Griffiths is a music critic, novelist, and librettist.
An Interview with Zosha Di Castri
by Nicky Swett
How do you approach composing chamber music differently from writing for solo instruments or for large ensembles?
My approach to writing is always context sensitive. I think about how best to communicate my ideas with the time, resources, and musicians I have. My chamber music often involves some flexibility for the performers, particularly at transitional moments, where I entrust the musicians with making decisions about the micro-timing of events. I try to give the players their own moments to shine. I like the democratic structure of making chamber music. There is a directness and an attuned listening that one doesn’t always find with large ensembles. When possible, I like to collaborate through workshops and revise my chamber music as it is rehearsed, much like what might happen in a dance rehearsal, where a choreographer tries out a work on the dancers to see what works and what needs to be adapted.
In your new work for Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano/Keyboard, you combine the midi keyboard with acoustic piano. How do electronic and instrumental sounds blend and depart from one another in this piece?
In Hypha, I had the idea of creating a microtonal shading of the piano, a detuned double that would be like a slightly warped perspective of the same musical object. By stacking a digital keyboard where the music stand usually sits and placing small speakers inside the piano, I hope to give the impression of a hybrid instrument originating from the same physical source. It should sound both familiar yet strange to our ears. Like an organ or 2-manual harpsichord, the pianist must navigate between the two keyboards, sometimes playing both simultaneously. Though the lines are not particularly challenging in and of themselves, there is a geographical and choreographic element to learning the flow between the keyboards that I suspect will take some practice.
Can you tell me more about the dedication of the piece to the ecologist Suzanne Simard? How do the sounds of trees find their way into the piece?
At the time of composing this, I had filled my sketch book with drawings of trees. The sounds of trees aren’t necessarily relevant to the work, but their forms, bark, roots, and majesty were on my mind. I have sketches of trees that were reportedly uprooted and replanted upside-down with the roots becoming the branches and the branches becoming the roots. Drawings of trees growing through the ruins of abandoned buildings, illustrations of the haunting underwater forest of Lake Kaindy, trees growing from within the shell remains of dead trees, trees whose soil was washed out from beneath them but who stand nevertheless suspended on stilt-like roots, trees whose roots grow in geometric patterns between the cracks of cement bricks in cities. While writing Hypha, I had recently read professor of forest ecology Suzanne Simard’s moving memoir Finding the Mother Tree. I was struck by Simard’s radical observation that cooperation might be as central to evolution as competition. Though a tree may stand tall and look strong and independent on the surface, its health is very likely made possible by the complex system of fungi and roots connecting it to neighboring trees beneath the surface. It struck me that this was a beautiful metaphor for life and for making chamber music.
Intervals of All Shapes and Sizes
by Nicky Swett
In 1971-72, in a set of seminal music perception studies, cognitive scientist Jay Dowling investigated how listeners learn and recognize sequences of particular intervals—the relative distance in pitch between subsequent notes. One of the most important findings of his studies was that interval perception is more a matter of overall shape than precise inter-note spaces. The patterns of ups and downs, and the approximate size of each leap or step in a tune, produce a fuzzy sense of identity, whereby one stretch of music can be related to another without a perfect match of pitches or distances. This is why we recognize "Happy Birthday" when it is sung in different keys, but also why we might recognize "Happy Birthday" were it to be sung in the minor mode, or when somebody sings it a bit out of tune, missing some of the jumps in the tune. General contour is the essence of melodic interval perception.
The notion of fuzzy intervals is useful when listening to Trio-Variations by Carlos Sánchez-Gutiérrez. Variation sets are often devoted to the gradual ornamentation, expansion, or development of a fixed set of intervals. In the first variation of this piece, the theme is broadened to include a sequence of large leaps. The precise distance of each those leaps might be tricky to track in our ears, especially on a first hearing, but the approximate contours of the gestures are shared from variation to variation, creating clear and meaningful continuity.
Much music of the 20th and 21st centuries explores the space between the intervals of the 12-tone Western chromatic scale, deliberately pointing our ears to the ambiguities of how big or small an interval really is. In the opening of Shadow Lines for Cello and Electronics by Gity Razaz, the cello unfolds a long melody, with a recorded delay echoing each subsequent phrase back. These phrases spring not from a fixed melodic interval, but from a slide from one note down to the next, a slide that is quickly imitated by the electronic delay. The effect draws our ears to the relative nature of hearing different notes, emphasizing that the space between them is also always there to be played.
It is such play in which the pianist and flutist engage in Misato Mochizuki’s Intermezzi I. The pianist gives whistled cries and the subtle pitch bends from the flute probe the area between possible notes. Fixed melodic intervals are certainly not absent, but they become subsidiary to contours and gestures that defy strict intervallic interpretation, which the instruments present, imitate, play several times, or occasionally abandon to fleeting memory after only one hearing.
New Milestones: Interval
Hypha: Five Miniatures for Suzanne Simard for Clarinet, Violin, Cello, and Piano/Keyboard was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center with the support of the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation.