The audience sat in two rings of chairs around the outside of Ipswich Hall at the Boston Conservatory. A series of pedestals with music stands, catafalques clustered with lights in small round glasses (resembling prayer candles, but, for safety’s sake, electric lights); in each corner, varied percussion setup in the cardinal directions, and in the center, arose a larger, taller pedestal with four music stands—all stood facing one another.
This was the stage set for Reiko Yamada’s Mask Your Sonic Story, the hour-long work that received its world premiere Friday night. The composer of the so-called “experimental opera” also describes herself as a sound artist who works with installations in space. She encourages listeners to move about and experience the work variously. For Sonic Story the program noted that “You may sit by the wall, stand, or quietly move around during this piece. You are encouraged to follow the characters during the performance.”
The characters in question were the singers of Lorelei, dressed in black and wearing masks that covered eyes and tops of heads (leaving the vocal mechanisms free). But they entered, along with the percussionists of the Boston Percussion Group, after the lights had been lowered, so that the entire performance took place in a world of mystery and near darkness. Only the small LED lights on the music stands, the “candles” in the glasses on the catafalques, and—for part of the performance—paper lanterns held aloft on sticks resembling a series of moons provided any illumination.
The arc of the performance stretched from the barest whisper of brushes on drumheads to a progressively fuller and gradually varied fusion of percussion sounds and vocalization—sometimes wordless, sometimes with brief verbal phrases—uttered by the singers, though texts rarely managed to elaborate situation or plot. The flow is difficult to characterize, except that in general it built to a great climax and then gradually resolved again into the near silence in which it began.
The percussionists stayed with their instruments and used scores throughout, but the singers perambulated (slowly, as a rule), mingling with the audience, moving up onto the pedestals, where they, too, had scores. But when they were moving or were away from the pedestals, they used no scores, even thru the intricate flow from one kind of vocalizing to another. Later one of the singers assured me that they had in fact memorized those parts of the score they had executed when they were not able to look at the music. They had not improvised.
The percussion sounds throughout varied gradually, emphasizing at any moment a particular type of percussion instruments—drums, wood, metal, and so on.
For a fairly extended time, four of the singers lay down on the catafalques, with a group of the candle-glasses at their feet, while the other singers circulated with paper lanterns which hovered like moons over each one, playing small silvery bells as they sang—in four simultaneous duets—to the recumbent singers. At the same time the percussionists moved to the metallic bell-like sounds of their instruments, providing a bright, shimmering sound. Eventually the singers lying down grew silent Sleeping? Or perhaps dead? Eventually they rose again, and four of the singers mounted the high central pedestal to sing facing one another as a quartet.
The darkness, with small glints of light around, the gradual movements of the performers, the extraordinary wash of sonorities changing, slowly but steadily, over the course of the hour, and the masks on the singers, apparently meant to evoke memories or images of legends and fairy tales—but not of any particular story or tradition. The composer explained that she wanted the listeners to draw images from their own backgrounds and experiences. I, for instance, probably inspired by the fox mask, recalled the animal stories of the Massachusetts conservationist-author Thornton W. Burgess (1874-1965), which my mother read to me when I was very young. No doubt everyone else drew from his own imagery.
The Hiroshima-born composer met Beth Willer, the founder-director of Lorelei, several years ago, when both were at Boston University. Yamada completed her doctorate in composition at McGill University and has spent this year at the Radcliffe Institute. When she received that appointment, she entered into plans for the piece Lorelei played Friday night. Mask Your Sonic Story was superbly presented and generally fascinating. I think I would have preferred a more symbolic title to encourage the listener’s imagination to flow more freely, but the effect of the sounds and gestures fascinated throughout.
For the second half, the chairs were re-set in normal rows facing the performers.
Willer explained that Lorelei programs aim for striking contrasts, such as that between Medieval and modern music in its previous concert, or, in this case, between a new work of concert music and something quite different from innovative pop artists. Björk’s songs from her Bibliophilia album, and Justin Vernon’s from the indie-folk band Bon Iver of Eau Claire Wisconsin arrived in arrangements for the same ensemble of women’s voices and percussion. Mezzo-soprano Sophie Michaux and soprano Sonja Tengblad featured as soloists for the Björk songs, with the rest of Lorelei as backups. Steve Reich’s nearly 20-minute Music for Mallets, Voices, and Organ of 1973 followed, blending the ringing tintinnabulation and sustained female voices (and soloists Sonja Tengblad and Eliza Bagg) for a bright conclusion to this sonorous adventure.