in: Reviews

November 9, 2017

Architecting Sonic Particles

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Ensemble Adapter (Maria Gurun Runarsdottir photo)

Harvard’s Group for New Music habitually leaves me thinking for days. It always offers new sounds and huge potential, featuring composers from Harvard’s music department. On Saturday, in Paine Hall at Harvard University, the group performed with Ensemble Adapter, a German-Icelandic ensemble comprising flute, clarinet, harp, and percussion.

Last May, I heard the premiere of Julio Zúńiga’s collage-like GIS for amplified clarinet, trombone, percussion and electronics that had exactly 7’13” of white noise cutting through the middle. CAS, sounds dead simple upon first listen; it is based almost entirely on a spectral analysis of the white noise track used in GIS. CAS runs 7’13”, just like the section of white noise in GIS. Zúńiga plays with instrumentation by using a piccolo flute through an analog octave pedal (which transposes the flute up an octave), a contrabass clarinet through a different analog octave pedal (which transposes the clarinet down an octave), and an electronic part consisting of very low sine tones, triggered by the clarinetist. His use of extreme registers adds an inhuman element, creating a livelier texture to match the formative electronic element.

Zúńiga’s notes read, “Growing up, my aunt showed me and my brothers how, when putting a seashell to our ears, we could hear the memory of the ocean inside of it. This was before my aunt cut down the cas tree in her backyard.” The emotional commentary fits the composer’s harmonic structure, compiling sounds from the inside of a seashell, sounds from the inside of a falling tree, and most importantly, silence. It’s played in darkness, except for sections breaks separated by light. A seashell sits on a pedestal on stage, with voids of silence or near-silence accompanying it.

I asked Zúńiga if he uses silence as structure in CAS and GIS, to which he answered,

I think silence is definitely structural for me. Particularly in this new piece, the silent section I think you are referring to is proportionally very long with respect to the entire duration of the piece. It is, I think, in itself a whole section, especially because it is also the only part with actual visual elements (the illumination of the seashell)… What I can say I suppose a little more generally is that there are also different types of silence. In the case of the shell, it acts as actual material with a direct structural impact. In other cases, it might be more gestura—a breath or a comma.

At times, his silences are not silent at all – instead, Zúńiga fades in and out with the instruments almost inaudibly, matching the visual aspect of the lights illuminating and then dimming the hall. Zúńiga’s CAS is understated yet visceral, experimenting with structure in an arresting way.

Zeynep Toraman’s High Windows demonstrated extremities of registers, her sounds taking the shape of chimes and glass clinks with the flute, clarinet, and mixed percussion. In the middle of, bass flute switched to flute, and bass clarinet switched to clarinet, giving the illusion of a climbing higher up a building to reach higher windows. Toraman quoted Philip Larkin’s poem “High Windows” to elucidate:

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows.
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Can Bilir’s Gerileme does seemingly the opposite: “Gerileme” in Turkish means decline, recession, retreat, and deterioration. Bilir’s work included some of the raspiest tones of the night, experimenting creatively with the use of extended techniques, including scratches from the drums, harsh tones in the harp, and singing while playing into the flute and clarinet. Again, a composer toys with the idea of form and structure. In his notes, he writes, “I composed Gerileme on fragile textural assemblages of sounds, sometimes almost uncontrollably inaudible, sometimes contrary, loud, and irritable. They are restrained inside larger temporal sections, which do not turn into their fully mature form—at least to my ear—and preserve the feeling of their underdeveloped state.” Eunice Lee’s Nascent begins with labored breathing and darkness and ends with shrill tones, meandering, melodious qualities in between. She outlines how it deals with the passing of time, lingering and tip-toeing along.

Fernando Manassero’s composition Dwarf Mountain brought the fresh air and bright energy needed to finish Saturday’s concert, full of imaginative character and boundless colors. “I was thinking in energies and densities. It’s a windy piece,” he writes. “In the sense of character and dynamics, I could get this from the instruments, which led to some textural configurations, a kind of architecture of sonic particles, so to speak, but very dirty at the same time, opening to a bigger space that collapses.” Although not included in the notes, Manassero shared with me what influenced him: based on Argentinian Alberto Laiseca’s short story “Contemplación del Gran Madero,” a general in the east learned to meditate by observing a small, wooden cube in a sand garden in his studio. Meditating, he imagined that his army came across a much larger structure of the same shape, wondering if it was natural or man-made, trying to understand what it could be. At the end, the general wakes up from his meditation in a very Ives-like fashion.

Manassero composes on a deeper level than his programmatic aspect suggests. “For a few years now, I’ve been thinking a lot how we experience time through sound… I’m particularly interested in unfolding spaces by zooming into textures.” Dwarf Mountain was virtually an exploration of textures, complete with pops, clicks, and breathy tones overlapping with mixed percussion, a gravely harp, and electronics. Manassero explored sound in ways I have not heard before.

Harvard Group for New Music returns on February 10th with cellist Kevin McFarland, again featuring works by Harvard composition students. 

Rachael Fuller studied piano and music theory at Kent State University in Ohio.

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