IN: Reviews

Music Meets Physics at Harvard


Firebird Ensemble performed a program of Murail, Saariaho, Grisey, and Satoh at the The Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University on Thursday evening, October 28 (the concert was also presented Wednesday).  The venue featured some interesting visuals from a spectrograph being projected throughout the concert. Also on display were sirens and various historical instruments related to the physics of sound. All of the pieces accompanying the exhibit, Sensations of Tone: wave physics and the creative arts are, in some way, profoundly connected to physical aspects of sound, generally in ways which integrate technology.

The performances were supplemented by panel discussions between pieces. Panelists on Thursday included composer Alex Rehding and science historians Jimena Canales and Myles Jackson.  While each of the discussions was informative and interesting, I think most would have preferred the traditional format: panel discussions and presentations pre-concert, with uninterrupted music. Murail’s Treize couleurs du soleil couchant, a landmark composition in the establishing of the spectralist aesthetic, shifts through thirteen coloristic musical frames. The only electronic manipulation used in the piece involves adjustments in the level of amplification and slight changes to the reverberant space of individual instruments. The resulting effect, however, is wildly more electronic sounding.  In particular, there is an enormous demand on the part of the flautist. Jessi Rosinski’s level of control and musicality was quite remarkable, and brought a heightened level of cohesion to the textures masterfully orchestrated by Murail.

Kaija Saariaho’s Lonh was the most recently composed piece on the program (1996). Saariaho, who is largely influenced by the music of spectralists Murail and Grisey, explores various timbres of the soprano voice in this piece.  Jane Sheldon’s potent, forceful voice was a perfect match for this piece.  The live electronic manipulation diffused haunting timbres around the room, shifting in and out of the dense texture of the voice. Whispers bounced around the speakers, while crystalline strands of Sheldon’s immaculately controlled upper register dissipated into impossibly transforming acoustical spaces. The narrative of the piece is beautifully handled, and the performance was convincing.

Grisey’s Prologue takes a solo viola on a long-winded linear journey from a fairly simple sequence of pitches towards noise (sub-tones and bow-screeching). The program notes describe the piece as a study in the timbral limits of a single instrument, though I found the actual timbral limits of this piece to be fairly limited. The repetitive, slowly varying nature of the piece allowed for little expressive use of the instrument’s acoustic and dynamic possibilities. Instead, the repetitive music integrates microtones (derived from the harmonic series), which elicited some interesting moments. While Nathaniel Farny gave an accurate and motivated performance of the very difficult and technically demanding music, the piece was quite one-dimensional, and at times rather dull.

The Heavenly Spheres are Illuminated By Lights by Japanese composer Somei Satoh featured some fine playing by percussionist Aaron Trant and pianist Cory Smythe and some more great singing by soprano Jane Sheldon. The piece was characterized by a number of truly beautiful textures and took a very different aesthetic approach from the other pieces on the program. The piece undoubtedly has, due to its minimalist influence and generally consonant set of sound environments, a much wider appeal. Unfortunately it was a rather short period of time before I got the impression the text was simply marinating in a set of lugubrious, euphoric textures. The music did little (if anything) interesting after the exposition of these sounds. The result was an unusually long twelve minutes.

Sargasso Arts, the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard, and Firebird Ensemble deserve commendation for taking contemporary music into a new and interesting venue.  While composers like Murail and Grisey have become iconic figures in many ways, their music remains rarely programmed and even more rarely performed well.  And despite being presented in an ultra-cerebral environment, much of the music was intriguing and beautiful.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

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