wet earth

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.

Places of the Heart

Sometimes how we feel about a book—or how a book makes us feel—can depend on where we are when we read it.  I first read Louise Erdrich, who will be in Santa Cruz next week to discuss her latest novel, when I was living in France.  One fall afternoon I bicycled to the outskirts of Bordeaux and settled myself in a small park overlooking a lake.  I sat on the grass, took off my shoes, and leaned against a tree.  I remember that the bark was gray and soft and the trunk was wide and sloped just right, as if it had been designed for the purpose of providing shelter and support.  It was my second year of teaching English in France, and that year I had decided to be a student myself and take an American Lit class at the university.  Love Medicine, Erdrich’s first novel, was our first assignment.  I opened the book, and this is what I read:

The morning before Easter Sunday, June Kashpaw was walking down the clogged main street of oil boomtown Williston, North Dakota, killing time before the noon bus arrived that would take her home.  She was a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved.  Probably it was the way she moved, easy as a young girl on slim hard legs, that caught the eye of the man who rapped at her from inside the window of the Rigger Bar.  He looked familiar, like a lot of people looked familiar to her.  She had seen so many come and go.  He hooked his arm, inviting her to enter, and she did so without hesitation, thinking only that she might tip down one or two with him and then get her bags to meet the bus.  She wanted, at least, to see if she actually knew him.  Even through the watery glass she could see that he wasn’t all that old and that his chest was thickly padded in dark red nylon and expensive down.

This was the first paragraph, occupying the first page of the novel.  But instead of turning the page I put the book down, overwhelmed with too many feelings to name.  I remember how I stared at the lake for a long time, thinking of home, not just my home but also a larger, rougher, American home.  I was dimly aware of unspecified longings in my heart which these sentences pressed upon in a way that, at twenty-five, I was too young to understand.  She had seen so many come and go.  We are barely into the first paragraph, and already Erdrich has generated a atmosphere suffused with loss, an atmosphere that is raw and tender and most of all, to my eyes then and now, real.

Years later, sitting on another patch of grass, I was reading another Erdrich novel.  I had just finished a weekend workshop at Esalen, in Big Sur, and was enjoying some time on the Great Lawn which overlooks the Pacific Ocean.  The book in my hands was The Plague of Doves.  A chapter called “Sister Godzilla,” about a nun whose deformed jaw looks like “a great raw-boned jackal’s muzzle” and causes her students to openly mock her, ends like this:

There was no place to look but my teacher.  But when I lifted my eyes, this time, Sister Mary Anita was not looking at me.  She had turned her face away, her rough cheek blotched as if it bore a slap, her gaze hooded and set low.  Sister walked to the window, back turned against me, against the class, and as the laughter started, uncomfortable and groaning at first, then shriller, fuller, becoming its own animal, I felt an unrecoverable tenderness boil up and rise around my ears.  Inwardly, I begged Mary Anita to turn and stop the noise.  But Sister did not.  She let it wash across us both without mercy.  I lost sight of her unspeakable profile as she looked out onto the yard.  Bathed in brilliant light, her face went blank as a sheet of paper, as the sky, featureless as all things which enter heaven.

It was while reading Plague of Doves that day at Esalen, under a brilliant blue sky, the sea also deep blue, its surface whitely shredded by the wind, that it occurred to me Louise Erdrich just might be my favorite living author.  I can’t think of another writer whose storytelling is as rooted in the deep earth of living while reaching out for spirit.  Her sentences are pathways to those places of the heart I can usually only access through music, or nature, or lovemaking, or grief, or prayer.

At the end of the first chapter of Love Medicine, June Kashpaw has gone with the man from the bar, has let him groan his body against hers in his car and now has pulled herself together and left him and is walking through the snow.  Earlier, while still at the bar, in the ladies room, “she was afraid to bump into anything because her skin felt hard and brittle, and she knew it was possible, in this condition, to fall apart at the slightest touch . . . But as she sat there, something happened . . . She felt that underneath it all her body was pure and naked—only the skins were stiff and old.”  This is how the chapter ends:

Even when it started to snow she did not lose her sense of direction.  Her feet grew numb, but she did not worry about the distance.  The heavy winds couldn’t blow her off course.  She continued.  Even when her heart clenched and her skin turned crackling cold it didn’t matter, because the pure and naked part of her went on.

The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home.

Louise Erdrich, at Bookshop Santa Cruz, Thursday, October 18, at 7:00 p.m..  Click here to pre-order a copy of The Round House, her latest novel, and to receive a numbered signing voucher.

The Power of Two, Part Two

It is 99 degrees in Big Sur today and my heat-benumbed brain has just about enough energy to write a short postscript to last week’s Jazz Festival piece.  Immediately after Jack DeJohnette and Bill Frisell’s transcendent duo performance, I remained in Dizzy’s Den for a group called 90 Miles, so named for the measured distance between Cuba and the southernmost tip of Florida.  David Sánchez and Nicolas Payton were the marquee attractions for this six-man Latin Jazz band, and they did not disappoint.  Unlike DeJohnette and Frisell, however, Sánchez (tenor sax) and Payton (trumpet) mostly took turns offering stellar solos that soared above the supportive framework of the other players (piano, bass, percussion and drums).  This was a two-man show that was more about comparison, even competition, than connection.

With a creamy, open tone and incredible technical dexterity, Sánchez (photo at right) is a visceral player who involves his whole body in his playing, leaning back on his heels as he blows, sinking into his knees, and thrusting his pelvis forward in a gesture that is frankly sexual, if only because his playing is so free and utterly unrestrained.  His exhaustion after he plays also seems sexual, yet he quickly recovers, and stands to the side of the stage, loose and supple and listening to the others.

Payton is more of the stand-and-blow type, his face and body impassive, like a martial artist whose power is concealed by a lack of expression.   As the two men took turns in the solo spotlight, I found myself thinking of Payton as a tree and Sánchez as a wave.  Payton doesn’t move: where does the energy come from?  In Sánchez’s playing, everything is transparent, his passion and his effort, and his performance is therefore more satisfying to watch.  In one of his blistering solos he slowly but persistently moved in degrees up the musical scale, two or three or four notes up, one or two down, then back up again, as if carrying a burden up a mountain.  When he reached the top of the phrase with a declamatory shriek the entire audience felt the glory and achievement of the moment.  Payton is a virtuosic musician, no doubt, but he plays as if he were alone, unmoved by the warm-hearted rhythms that surround him.

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