“Activism through music has been a vital force throughout history as a display of resistance to oppression and injustice,” according to A Far Cry’s preface to its Saturday afternoon livestreamed “Flames to Ashes;” the show also ran live at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain.
Black transdisciplinary artist Yaz Lancaster, Pulitzer Prize recipient Kevin Puts, and Korean composer Jung-Yoon Wie, each addressed a human condition through the medium of the string quartet. A Far Cry took to “our streets” with acute awareness of its evocative signals, caught Credo’s American ways with hymn to hoedown, then, in Han, deftly bowed, vocalized, even drummed through multiple musical traditions.
It was A Far Cry’s first live-stream from the church, and they were “excited” about it. Some 45 to 55 were watching at any given time. Judging from a few camera shots which panned portions of the church, a good-sized and receptive audience also appeared in person. Thinking of Covid19 and other tragedies, violinist and curator Jae Cosmos Lee spoke about his family and the Korean war that had brought “so many knots in our hearts…we want to unravel the knots and feel peace…what is the music to appease my anger?” Concluding his opening remarks, Lee implored, “I want all of us to be messengers to change the narrative.”
And in so doing, as well as answering his question about what music could appease anger, A Far Cry commissioned and premiered Yaz Lancaster’s “our streets.” The new work commemorates the centennial of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Words from the Criers: “From May 31 to June 1, 1921, a white mob burned to the ground the homes and businesses of a predominantly Black community across 35 blocks near Tulsa, Oklahoma.”
Lancaster greeted us in a videotape from Harlem and introduced “our streets” as not entirely an elegy, the string quartet plus double bass really is a “collection of gestures.” It is something of a “celebration as well as a remembrance of pain and trauma.” Several online listeners praised Lancaster’s work for its “evocative” power. The 20-minute collection had A Far Cry in string wisps, sudden loud bursts, plucking bass, three-and four-note call-and response motives, sliding strings, bouncing bows, trills, tremolos, and a Blues trace. Mostly thin textures in a nonmetric unfolding suggested a score written to allow A Far Cry’s vast string experience to further communicate or to evoke celebration and remembrance. All in all, quite a feat for a 21-year-old composer who can only be thrilled by A Far Cry’s dedicated, artistic response.
“Kevin Puts wrote Credo in response to the devastating shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, [and it is] offered as a hymn of hope,” according to the Criers.The four movements played without pause were discernible: I. “The Violin Guru of Katonah” II. “Infrastructure” III. Intermezzo: “Learning to Dance” IV. Credo.
Simpler, innocent, and affirmative writing from Puts offered A Far Cry a different opportunity to demonstrate it prowess. Hoedown flourishes and dancing along with hymnic accompaniments and refrains, a violin cadenza, and nods to Native American ethos naturally streamed from A Far Cry. The warmth and comfort evinced by composer and players perfectly contrasted the activist bookends of the program. Credo refreshed old pages of American string music such as those perhaps out of Barber and Copland. The 2007 piece arranged later for string quartet skillfully and creatively chose reaffirmation rather than reinvention. The assenting Credo finished with refrain upon refrain then diminished into silence. A breakout from the angst expressed by Lee, Credo would bring peace.
And Criers declared that Jung-Yoon Wie’s Han “…speaks directly to the rising hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. The quartet is used to illustrate the Korean word, Han, described as an internalized feeling of deep sorrow, grief, resentment, and anger from personal and historical trauma.”
The 25-minute Han began with the harmonic language of Bach and Beethoven, together with tonal outliers—dissonance—perked ears in most remarkable ways. Those common chords, major and minor, attached and freed themselves from those often-intense outliers. Resolutions struck anew. Yet to have all this morph into an overly long launch of traditional Korean music raised questions about continuity. The admirable restraint and utter brilliance of writing, turning one culture to another may have been welcomed by some. A Far Cry certainly gave a phenomenal recreation, but as the string quartet was given over to the Korean-styled vocalizations and the percussion switchovers of Jung-Yoon Wie, we felt stranded in idealism.
Criers: Gabriella Díaz, Miki-Sophia Cloud, Jae Cosmos Lee, Jason Fisher, Loewi Lin, Lizzie Burns