This week brings two offerings that should be especially worthwhile for contemporary-music aficionados in Seattle. The mission of The Box Is Empty is “to engage new and seasoned audiences in the evolving ways we interact with and experience sound, art, and music.” The ensemble was launched just half a year ago, with a program devoted to the unfailingly intriguing Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. On Thursday they present their second concert at the Good Shepherd Center as part of the boldly adventurous Wayward Music Series.
The program will pair works by two innovative American composers: Steve Reich and David Lang.
Reich is best-known for his pioneering work in Minimalism and has explored the intersection between speech and music in fascinating ways. In Proverb (1995), he uses one brief text by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, at the same time drawing on rhythmic techniques from medieval music. In this case, the uncannily fitting text, repeated throughout the duration of the piece, is “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life” (taken from Wittgenstein's notebooks as published in Culture and Value.) The result is a mesmerizing slow-motion lyricism and overlapping pulsation.
Reich’s setting for three sopranos, two tenors, vibraphones, and electric organs also sets the stage for the heart-rending simplicity of Lang’s the little match girl passion. Using the barest flecks of tuned percussion to accompany a vocal quartet, Lang also alludes to early music — commentary choruses from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion settings and the spare beauty of Renaissance polyphony — to recount the famous Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a young girl who slowly freezes to death trying to sell matches on a bitterly cold New Year's Eve.
Despite Lang’s austere minimalism, the stylized chamber drama of match girl’s winter tale leaves a devastating emotional impression. There’s no substitute for encountering it in live performance. “The suffering of the little match girl has been substituted for Jesus’s,” writes the composer, “elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane.” Although it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2008, only now (!) is this remarkably moving composition receiving its Northwest premiere. Bravo to The Box Is Empty for breaking the ice.
Meanwhile, Seattle Modern Orchestra, already into a second season, has been establishing itself as a user-friendly guide to classic modernist landmarks. Artistic directors Julia Tai and Jeremy Jolley, who cofounded the chamber ensemble while grad students at the University of Washington, typically offer illuminating nuts-and-bolts introductions to the pieces they perform. Their concerts this season are alternating between the Good Shepherd Center and Cornish College’s Poncho Hall on Capitol Hill, where this Friday’s program takes place.
Like a smartly curated art show, each program attempts to shed light on different composers’ approaches to a given theme. Next up is Layers of Time, which promises a focus on the way a piece is made to unfold through time: specifically, through the use of “layering” of independent threads that happen simultaneously.
The fancy word for this is “counterpoint.” Bach’s art of combining such layers in pieces like the Brandenburg Concertos represents a way that’s familiar to Western ears. But Seattle Modern Orchestra will showcase three examples from the late 20th century that explore alternatives to this kind of richly blended aural tapestry. SMO compares their methods to geological strata, “where each layer was formed in different time periods.”
If you take in Steve Reich’s Proverb the previous night, you can compare it to his earlier Eight Lines for chamber orchestra. Written in 1983 (a revision of his still earlier Octet), Eight Lines is a tour de force study in interlocking simultaneities.
Piece No. 2 for Orchestra, a work from near the end of American maverick Conlon Nancarrow’s long career, should be a real treat. It’s a rare orchestral piece by a composer especially known for the hypercomplex rhythms of his studies for player piano. SMO will also present Talea by French composer Gérard Grisey who died prematurely in 1998. Grisey was a student of one of the 20th century's most imaginative composers, Olivier Messiaen. Titled after a term from medieval music that refers to rhythmic structures, Talea plays on the paradox or mechanical processes that open up into freedom.
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