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Extraordinary Sonic Sculpting from Fenwick Smith at Jordan Hall


Fenwick Smith’s flute and bass flute were both at the center of an extraordinary sound sculpture with the unseemly title of Crippled Symmetry. Flanked by Sarah Bob, piano and celesta, and Aaron Trant, glockenspiel and vibraphone, Smith and these young players sent us miles upon miles away from the mundane for nearly 90 minutes, non-stop. Morton Feldman composed the “meticulously laid out score” as Smith puts it in his program notes, in 1983. Feldman cites the painter Robert Rauschenberg as wanting “neither life nor art, but something in between.” And — believe me — what was in between was altogether sumptuously sonic sculpting from every instrumentalist, all, of course, expected to produce sound within a extremely narrow range of volume, a highly controlled amplitude level set up by the composer: soft.

Imagine sets after sets of wind chimes quietly ringing in gently shifting breezes. That should give you a fairly good idea of Crippled Symmetry’s feel. This all took place on Sunday, September 12; the New England Conservatory presented Fenwick Smith’s 34th Annual Recital at Jordan Hall, a perfect spot for shaping only soft sounds from one of America’s most original voices.

For all these tensionless sounds no amplification at all was necessary. You could hear virtually every note — at times, some notes merged with others and so became “hidden.” No physical energy appeared to be exerted. But focus, concentration, and the like were achieved at superior levels. I could not help but marvel at the degree of complete attention Smith, Bob, and Trant unremittingly mustered for so long a time. Their depth of commitment inspired the same of the listener.

I came to the concert with Morton Feldman’s handwritten score (published by Universal Edition). Several times, the composer reminds the three players that “it should be understood that this page (like the others) is not a synchronized score.” Following the score as I listened showed, among other things, that each performer must observe his or her sequence of patterns. So, if you are following the score, you might find yourself flipping pages back and forth to locate each part: flute on a page before what the percussionist is playing, the keyboardist somewhere further along yet on another page — you’re never always quite sure where everybody is on the page. Somehow, with repeats marked in the score and a compendium of meter changes throughout the 38-page partition, these three performers finished more or less at the same time.

How can the mind concentrate on something as simple as a single pitch played over and over again, first in a two-note group, then as a single note? Also, consider that the listener could only hear but the minutest of changes in articulation, so refined and concentrated was this extraordinarily sculptured performance.

Fenwick Smith brought us into a space where the slightest of change in breath, or vibrato, or attack would not go unnoticed. Page 29 of the score calls for the flute to create pulsations from A-flats in eighth-notes tied together. The nuances that came out of this page were so small — but as eerily beautiful as one could not have heretofore imagined. How did percussionist Aaron Trant maintain evenness in his superbly sensitive delivery of quick repeated notes with right-hand mallet on the glockenspiel and left-hand mallet on the vibraphone? High and low register chords from Sara Bob resonated with Jordan Hall’s Steinway piano’s delicate timbres. I also marveled at how she could maintain a half-pedal position for much of the hour and one half. Both she and the percussionist penetrated the soft shell of Feldman’s finely shaped and contoured oeuvre from the 20th century complimenting Fenwick Smith’s unflinching flutes.

As John Cage, another colleague of Feldman, put it (which I paraphrase: “Most music talks; the sounds of traffic, say, do not; they are what they are, just sounds.” Here, in Crippled Symmetry, there’s no talking, but a wondrous in-between of nature and art.

See brief related article here.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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