Kevin Puts's "Living Frescoes"

When we say we are moved by a piece of music, what is the precise quality that moves us?  Is it the melody, the rhythm, the instrumentation?  Does it have to do with the environment we are in, the people we are with, the day’s repertoire of thoughts and feelings that have traveled across our inner pathways?  Does it have to do with our childhood, our personal stories, the hidden complexities of our hearts?  Do certain musical intervals align with certain emotional chords?  Does it have to do with volume, or timbre, or pitch?  Why is it that sometimes music is nothing more than pleasant strains in the background of our lives, and other times we may encounter music that enters us so deeply, penetrating us, moving through and within us, that we are somehow taken, as if possessed, and then restored back to ourselves, transformed?  Why can music be so wildly powerful, so raw, so all-encompassing?  What exactly is going on?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, which greater minds than mine have pondered through the ages, but I do know that in my experience there have been moments when music has embodied truly awesome, mysterious powers.  Such a moment occurred last Friday evening, at Sunset Center in Carmel, when Trio Solisti, joined by clarinetist Jon Manasse, performed the world premiere of “Living Frescoes,” by the acclaimed American composer Kevin Puts.

“Living Frescoes,” scored for piano, violin, cello and clarinet, was commissioned by Chamber Music Monterey Bay, and is the second commission in CMMB’s four-part Arc of Life commissioning project.  (The first was “White Water,” by Joan Tower.)  The Arc of Life project was inspired by a 2002 video installation by Bill Viola, entitled “Going Forth by Day,” which was itself inspired by Giotto’s fresco cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy.  This continuity of inspiration across the ages— from Renaissance fresco painting on walls, to contemporary video projection on screens, to timeless music heard in a concert hall—is threaded together by the common element of storytelling, a key aspect of “Living Frescoes,” and indeed in Puts’s work in general.

Yet although “Living Frescoes” follows the narrative sequence of Viola’s five videos that make up “Going Forth by Day,” Puts’s quartet has its own story to tell.  For every listener, of course, that story will be different.  This is an account of the story I heard.

“Living Frescoes” begins with some jauntily syncopated music entitled “Going Forth,” a lilting sequence that will return throughout the piece, weaving the different stories of the videos together while also suggesting the spaces in between, the pauses as the viewer moves from one screen to another.  What I heard in this introductory music was a depiction of someone arriving at a gallery space.  There is a feeling of ready openness and curiosity in this music, a genial receptivity that describes what may be the best way to approach and encounter art.

“Fire Birth,” based on images of a nascent human form emerging into stark illumination, occasioned music of extreme intensity and even violence, and introduced a powerful rising motif, an important recurring element of the piece.

For “The Path,” pianist Jon Klibonoff reached over the piano to create pleasing gamelan-like effects with the strings, lending a striking rhythmic element to the video image of people walking in a lightly-wooded forest.  (Selected stills of “Going Forth by Day” were projected throughout the performance.)  All the phases of our lives evolve with different rhythms, and this movement, to my ear, evoked an atmosphere of mid-life progress, that time in our lives when we are buoyed along by the belief in our own capacity to keep moving forward.

“The Deluge” contained the work’s most “challenging” music, with spiky rhythms and sudden melody-breaking turns that gathered into a momentum suggesting crisis.

“Voyage” was a barcarole or boat-song to accompany life’s final journey to the beyond.  Though tonally beautiful and easily (oh, I dislike this next word) accessible, in some ways this was the riskiest movement of the work, in its willingness to slow down the “going-forthness” of the piece to a place of ghostly delicacy and inner quiet.  It was during this movement that I heard the most seat-shifting and throat-clearing in the hall.  For all the public’s demand for undemanding, “beautiful” music, it is sometimes the quieter, more contemplative or meditative forms of art that can be, to the restless, distracted mind, the more difficult to absorb.  And, perhaps there was some discomfort with the death theme presented so open-heartedly.

“Voyage” lays an emotional foundation for the work’s last movement, “First Light,” during which I felt in myself the signs of musical possession: the softening of the heart, the thickening in the throat, the feeling of my body sinking deeper into my seat.  Again, I must ask questions.  How is it that this last movement manages to evoke a spiritual atmosphere of acceptance, of consolation in the face of grief and loss?  Why do I hear in these musical notes a kind of peace that is interwoven out of all the tumult and suffering that has come before?

Perhaps the question “why” is the wrong question.  Perhaps it is enough just to listen, and be still, and accept.

During the intermission, with the last movement’s ascending piano notes still in my ears, I wandered through the foyer amidst the crowd, a bit stunned, a bit dazed, with moistened eyes, caught up with too many feelings to name.  Mostly, I felt grateful.  “Living Frescoes,” performed with extraordinary polish and sensitivity by Trio Solisti and Manasse, manages to convey in about thirty-five minutes a complete, compelling, and somehow authentic musical portrait of birth, life, and death.  To witness and experience art profound as this is rare.  But then Kevin Puts, who won the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year for his opera “Silent Night,” is also rare.  He is a true genius, a storyteller, a seeker, a composer who listens to what the music needs, rather than impose any kind of system or dogma.  He is, above all, a translator, shaping our deepest, most private human emotions and experiences into that strange artistic alchemy of sound we call music.

This concert, which includes works by Beethoven and Chausson, will be broadcast on KUSP on Friday, October 26, 2012, at 8:00 p.m.  The broadcast will also feature a pre-recorded interview of Puts by Joe Truskot.