Experimentations in Extremes

Festival Daniou Artists-in-Residence 2017

Jennifer Liu violin

Khari Joyner cello

Robert Fleitz piano

Sammy Lesnick clarinet

Ariadne Greif soprano

The Festival Daniou exchanges Brittany’s countryside chapels for a surrealist New York City loft, with a rent estimate of $3,857 per month. Majestic jellyfish float on white-washed walls, a motorcycle revs in the alleyway below, and Wolfie, a fluffy Finnish Lapphund, prances on the wooden floor with leisurely dignity – his paws echo: “pit pat, pit pat.”

Simon Frisch, the festival co-director and son of Columbia music professor Walter Frisch, explains that the organization confronts the “idea of what is worth sharing” through “unusual repertoire.” Unorthodoxy lives in the program: paganism and eroticism oppose profound spirituality.

Fjóla Evans’s Reið – HagallBjarkan (2012-2013) launches the night. Ladies dressed in rustic garb spin on screen. Electronics rumble; they create an earthy texture appropriate for the film. Joyner, a former Columbia/Juilliard exchange student, executes perpetual pizzicatos. Evans, a cellist herself, percussivizes the instrument. The articulation drills holes into the terrestrial manifestation. An exposed vibrato in the cello’s stratosphere juxtaposes exhalations in the soprano-like electronics.

Tense waves evoke the sea. Intensity mounts, change is imminent. Joyner leaps, accentuates the higher partial. His resonance resounds. A lilting flute stumbles by. The country tune transforms, becomes border-line schizophrenic.

Sparkling electronics dominate the 3rd movement. A zombified bear disrupts the circular dance. Glistening vibrancy deifies the folk.

Ashkan Behzadi’s az Hoosh mi.. (2013) sets erotic Farsi poetry for soprano and violin. Sentences dangle incomplete, words fall off precipitously. Sexually-charged inhales mimic orgasmic gasps. Whispers stream from the soprano to her imagined lover. Primal desires crash against the violin’s harsh, realistic staccatos.

For this performance, Kaija Matīss, depicts a narrative program through film. A red light illumes and dims in time with the performers’ undulations. Close-ups of a female body surface. She pulls her lower lip slowly, displaying teeth and flesh. Dizziness boils.

The figure remains unstable, her full body never revealed. She disrobes, one layer at a time. When she slides her hands upward to remove her bra, the video suddenly cuts. The harsh break portrays the music’s intense halts. Lovers reach for language that always just eludes them.

Matīss envisions Behzadi’s music; they did not collaborate. When queried, Behzadi, a current DMA candidate at Columbia, approves of Matīss’s realization. He notes: “The piece is not mine anymore.” Post-publication, he loses ownership, thereby unveiling the work for artistic interpretation.

The music explores instrumental relations. Greif gulps, accelerated breaths leap from Liu’s bow. Euphoric bursts explode between performers. Swirling energy expands in space. Momentum tumbles toward desolate ravines. Individual differentiation dissolves – a disembodied sound world rises.

Behzadi explains how he sculpts the human voice. Soprano lines investigate the mouth as mechanism, the site of sound production. Unconventional sounds, such as sharp inhalations, result from his approach. Greif tells me that this performance practice tires the voice after repeated execution, but she does not show a trace of fatigue.

To conclude, a modern masterpiece: Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (1941). The quartet pendulates between creation and apocalypse: the beginning and end of time. Festival Daniou’s summer season centered on this work; the artist-in-residence ensemble performed it in the penultimate and final concerts. Tonight, they culminate their summer endeavors.

As introduction, Greif orates Messiaen’s textual commentary for each movement of the piece. Her declamation guides the listening experience, and creates distinct sectional divides.

“Harmonious silence of heaven…” Lesnick deliberates, then surreptitiously commences. Solemn ethereality whirls, glissandi ripple in the cello, imitation chatters.

Messiaen’s work features extended solos for three-quarters of the ensemble (sorry pianists). Abyss of the Birds is the clarinetist’s chance to dazzle. Lesnick again takes a long time to begin; the delay builds in anticipation. Mysterious gloom meanders in the throat register, well supported, yet with suitable wavers. Lesnick draws crescendos from absolute silence, gradually increasing in intensity until a full force pings throughout the loft. These dark emergences are especially nerve wracking on the instrument’s resistant notes. The A above the staff is one of those hazardous sticklers, but Lesnick executes with impressive control – his dynamic contrasts feel severe and visceral: he has achieved technical mastery.

The cello demands attention in Praise to the Eternity of Jesus. Joyner executes an electrified, albeit languid line. Time as concept recedes – faint, foreign, and distant. Joyner searches with despair, the pianist – Fleitz – consoles. Clean legato connections imbue the melody with pristine clarity. Heavenly vibrato deepens the sorrow. Why such misery for the opening of Genesis? Does this depict a conflict in Messiaen’s mission? But wait, the atmosphere transforms; it teeters toward beauty. Fleitz crescendos, enriches the harmony. Joyner joins; they express sanguine sublimity together. “Let there be light”: the promise and joy of creation.

Quatuor pour la fin du temps parts with a eulogy. It targets Jesus the man, “the being made divine towards Paradise.” The violin recalls the cello feature; long lines feel withdrawn and forlorn, audience attention centers on pitch succession. The piano accompaniment knocks with insistence. Light refracts; the sinews twist outward, ceaselessly. Imagery evokes the quartet’s title; the music conveys the extermination of time. Lesnick and Joyner close their eyes and listen. Is this a shared religious experience? Messiaen would give his blessing.

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Focused on New Music

Tonight Julia Den Boer gave a concert consisting of pieces by modern composers, three of whom have Columbia affiliation: Matthew Ricketts (DMA in Composition 2017), Ashkan Behzadi (pursuing a DMA in Composition), and Zosha Di Castri (Francis Goelet Assistant Professor of Composition). The performance was part of the Columbia Sounds concert series.

 

I appreciated Den Boer’s introductions. Before each piece she explained her own connection to the work, the composer’s thoughts, and what we were going to hear. Her educational talks allowed us to draw connections to what she played.

 

Melodia (2016) sprung forth from a conversation between Den Boer and Ricketts about the current usage of the piano in contemporary music. Nowadays composers often choose to explore the percussive nature of the piano. However, Ricketts decided to flip the script and instead focus on the melodic nature of the instrument.

 

The piece began with monophony, high in the right hand. It wandered and implored. Lines melted into each other, like smooth Swiss chocolate. Chordal textures sounded watery, like Debussy’s Jardins sous la Pluie. Volcanic bellows gurgled below. The drizzling rain poured down on this fire.

 

Because they overlapped, the melodies were not traditional in the singable sense. Just as you got used to one melodic idea, another entered, blurring the memory of the previous.

 

The one work without any Columbia ties on tonight’s program was Crimson, written by Rebecca Saunders in 2003-2005.

 

Den Boer explained that Crimson represented the ending sunset monologue of James Joyce’s Ulysses.* Saunders recreated the violent, enthusiastic empathy that the reader experiences via tone clusters. These are produced by striking several keys at the same time, usually with the fist, palm, or elbow. In succession, the clusters fashioned a musical line — a melody on fire.

 

Crimson explored the physicality of the piano. While executing a crazed, primal dance on the uppermost keys, Den Boer had to slap the side of the instrument with accented fervor. The juxtaposition created a timbral contrast. The incisive, manic dancing reminded me of Stravinsky’s Rite.

 

Den Boer said that she recently heard Saunders music described as “explosive meditation.” I thought the portrayal fit particularly well in the middle of the work. The combination of energetic, yet serene textures sounded like wind chimes tolling over a snow-covered yard.

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Den Boer recounted that Behzadi conceived of his Three Nocturnes (2008, 2009, 2014) as “glimpses and memories of other nocturnes.” Den Boer thought Ligeti has a strong influence. Behzadi leaned more toward Debussy. After hearing the nocturnes, I’d say that they’re both right. The first sounded like it was influenced by Debussy, especially in its contrast of ranges. The second had a Ligeti flare. The texture was sparse and pointed, ripe with tension.

 

The last nocturne featured a repeated tone. Clusters sparkled above and below, changing the repeated note’s quality; it became a friend who you no longer recognized. I find the previous “explosive meditation” description apt. Through repetition and re-presentation, the piece became a meditation session.

 

To conclude the program, Den Boer performed Di Castri’s DUX (2017). Before the piece began, I felt as if the atmosphere in the room had changed. Ambient chattering quickly extinguished and audience members sat with more attention. I had the impression that the concert built up toward this moment.

 

DUX was commissioned by the Yvar Mikhashoff trust. Den Boer premiered it at the Banff Center for the Arts in 2016.

 

Den Boer explained that DUX investigates how a composer can reconcile different, contradicting cells. The cells accelerated, toppled over each other, and suddenly vanished. These units embodied different characters, some stubborn, others sympathetic.

 

The cells created what we all love as concertgoers: familiarity in sections of change. Like sonata form, which presents similar material in different guises, the re-presentation of these cells constructed an engaged narrative.

 

Di Castri explored timbral differences. Before the performance, Den Boer inserted a small muffling device in the upper range of the piano. When struck, it had the same sound quality as a slapstick. Di Castri set this wooden timbre against a misty murmur in the middle range. She melded cells together to create amalgamated textures.

 

Since each cell had a distinctive character, it had to be performed with precision. Den Boer executed with confidence. She maintained each unit’s personality even while performing two at the same time. She displayed intense focus throughout, a physical sign of her passion and commitment for modern music. It’s exactly her diligence that this music earnestly deserves.

 

* The ending passage: O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down Jo me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

** Photo credit for featured image to Susan Boynton.

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