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Lives and Transfigurations

New York
Temple of Dendur, Sackler Wing, Metropolitan Museum of Art
09/11/2011 -  
Remembering September 11
Osvaldo Golijov: Tenebrae for string quartet
Ingram Marshall: Fog Tropes II, for string quartet and tape
Alfred Schnittke: Collected Songs Where Every Verse is Filled with Grief, arranged for string quartet by David Harrington
William Basinski: The Disintegration Loops, dlp 1.1 (Orchestration by Maxim Moston – World premiere)

The Wordless Music Orchestra String Quartet: Keats Dieffenbach, Caroline Stern (Violins), Nadia Sirota (Viola), Clarice Jensen (Cello)
The Wordless Music Orchestra, Ryan McAdams (Conductor)

The Wordless Music Orchestra in Dendur Temple
(© Coco T. Dawg)

The blazing sun, the sands leading to Sudan, and the 8,000-year-old temples in Upper (southern) Egypt are eternally mystical. And while the Temple of Dendur, reconstructed from the original edifice, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, doesn’t offer quite the hallucinatory mirages of Egypt itself, music performed here takes on an auditory resonance and a vaguely Orphic veneer.

But the quartet of contemporary works performed yesterday didn’t need the background of the Temple. The Wordless Music Orchestra, the string quartet, and the four composers–actually six, with two major transcribers–shared both the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and a series of halcyon philosophies which enabled them to come through it.

I. Marshall (© Coco T. Dawg)

That most prolific San Francisco composer, Ingram Marshall frequently relates the sounds of urban nature with the sounds of his music, and his rewriting of Fog Trope eliminating the brass, leaving strings and tape, gave a glowing picture of, yes, the fog and sea and foghorns of San Francisco Bay.

(The New York Daily News titled this Frog Tropes, but no amphibians make their audible appearance here.)

The genius of the work is not the dichotomy of sounds, but flawless enveloping of strings and extra-musical sounds. Somehow, Mr. Marshall so engrossed us in the music that the slow measures of the strings and the eerie sounds of seabirds, a lone Balinese flute and the warning notes coming through the fog were one.

Like the world of the bay around San Francisco, this was a sound world, a paean to the night and Mr. Marshall’s singular vision.

David Harrington, the First Violin of Kronos, arranged part of the late Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto for Mixed Chorus for that quartet. But the four players here, with the added resonance of the venue, gave the approximation of vocal tragedy here. The song, from the writings of a 10th Century Armenian Saint. was arranged by Mr. Harrington almost immediately after the bombing of the World Trade Center and dedicated “to all those who suffer.”

The result was unmistakably Schnittke on the surface. Swooping sounds, shuddering measures, deep, agonizing sections. Like all the music on this special occasion, it was moving, emotional, neither cryptic nor esoteric.

The opening work, Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae was filled not only with the great eclectic composer’s music, but written notes explaining the arcana of the music. Without the notes, one would not have realized the multiple layers. That the harmonies came from a Couperin manuscript, or that it “could be heard as the slow, quiet reading of an illuminated medieval manuscript. singing the letters of the Hebrew Alphabet…ending with the word ‘Jerusalem.’”

That was the composer’s glorious vision. But the effect of the 12-minute piece, dealing was consonant, sometimes modal music coming from afar and near, volumes which seemed to quote old songs (but one was never certain), which had a longing beautiful surface yet underneath throbbing with agony.

M. Moston, W. Basinski (© Coco T. Dawg)

The only problem with this otherwise engrossing concert was that every work had a doppelganger of exegeses and explanations.

On the surface, hearing William Basinski’s Disintegration Loop, one might have been hypnotized by a six-note theme–repeated approximately 300 times.(I asked the composer later, but even he wasn’t certain how many repetitions there were!)

The could have resembled like Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, but it had a far different series of beginnings. They are too detailed for quoting here, but Mr. Brasinski, who works much with “older” analogue and digital devices, was listening to some 20-year-old tapes he had made of his own music, sitting on a Brooklyn rooftop on September 11, 2001, watching the collapse of the World Trade Center, when noticing, to his horror, that chemically, the old tapes were fragmenting, and that the music was disintegrating.

To quote from his magnificent writing, “In the next days and weeks, I watched as I and my friends disintegrated in our own personal loops of fear and terror…Yet what remained was the heartfelt compassion, kindness and love which makes us human…”

His organic recording of several disintegrating loops has achieved rightful fame. What Maxim Moston has done is orchestrate one particular fragment, repeating its disintegration over a 40-minute spellbinding–not hypnotizing but spellbinding–piece. The theme is stated originally, and mainly played by trombone or horn, with amplified snare drum giving a constant “broken” sound.

The disintegration comes subtly, like some early minimalist changes. But the changes are microtonal, with micro-pauses, mcro-rests, Through Mr. Moston’s delicate orchestration–like a master-jeweler cutting through the most delicate stone–we hear death. The death of a tune. Yet this death is not sudden, but gradual, natural and finally inevitable.

No possible replication can be offered, either by the composer’s explanation or these wholly inadequate words. The background of the original transplanted Upper Egypt temple, the transfixed audience, the elusive 5pm sundown through the clouds, each added to this majestic picture of life and transfiguration.

Harry Rolnick



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