Editor’s Notebook: The sounds of solstice in Seattle

Plus, a tattooed Ghost of Christmas Present.

An especially festive hedge spotted on a recent evening walk. (Daniel Spils)

Ever since this planet was hit with a pandemic, the neighboring orbs have been crowding around, as if to gawk at our misfortune. This interplanetary rubbernecking came to my attention in March, when Mars, Jupiter and Saturn arranged themselves in a bright diagonal line. All through spring, summer, fall and now winter they’ve been easy to spot on evening neighborhood walks — 2020’s hottest cultural activity — hanging around in unusually close and conspicuous formations.

Next week, this jostling will culminate at the winter solstice in The Great Conjunction, when Jupiter and Saturn will get so near each other they’ll appear to form a “double planet,” something that hasn’t happened in 800 years. Clear skies willing, it’ll be a cool astronomical event to witness, but as it’s still 2020, who knows, the two planets might just as easily unlatch from their orbits and fling off into another galaxy.

If you’ve been reading this newsletter over this strange year, you know my thoughts have often turned to celestial happenings, and I recently discovered what seems an apt soundtrack: Large String Array, a musical-sculptural installation. Seattle sound artist Cameron Perry Fraser transformed the Jack Straw New Media gallery into a resonant instrument by stringing 1,200 piano wires floor to ceiling. The eerie soundscape it plays was sourced from ambient noise in Fraser’s apartment while he was “sheltering in place.”

The resulting music is ethereal, reverberant and mysterious. (The installation is up only through Dec. 18, but you can listen to the piece via Facebook.) It’s what I imagine planets murmuring to each other might sound like — simultaneously compelling and frightening, like the arrival of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Lest we forget, this year saw the arrival of a real-life series of monoliths.) The movie opens with the orchestral score Also Sprach Zarathustra, which you can hear Seattle Symphony play next week in a rebroadcast of last year’s masterful opening night concert featuring the Richard Strauss masterpiece (Dec. 24, 5:30 p.m.). Listen as those iconic first three notes pull your ears up toward the sky.

Northwest indie folk rocker Robin Pecknold (of Fleet Foxes) is having 'A Very Lonely Solstice Livestream.' (Shervin Lainez)

After so many months spent with eyeballs glued to our screens, just listening feels like sweet relief right now. Maybe that’s why so many artful end-of-year offerings are musical.

Northwest Film Forum is hosting the Longest Night: 2020 Solstice Ceremony (Dec. 21, 7 p.m. sliding scale tickets), a party that promises several different music streams via Twitch, performances in Zoom rooms, Tarot readings and “countless inventions culled from subconscious states.” If that sounds a bit overwhelming, consider just listening to the mixtape contributed by Seattle DJ ciénega (which you can stream here). Starting off with another iconic series of three upward notes — those beeps you hear when a phone number has been disconnected — the soundscape starts out dreamy, builds to full on dance party then settles down into an easy groove.

Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes has his own take on the longest night of the year: A Very Lonely Solstice Livestream. The Kirkland-born indie folk musician will be singing and playing a solo acoustic set from St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn, New York, via STG Presents (Dec. 21, 6 p.m. $20-$25). Perhaps the special guest appearance by the Resistance Revival Chorus will make him feel less alone.

With its grand opening continually delayed by forces beyond its control, Seattle’s Museum of Museums is offering art outside the building, with a new sound installation called UMMAGUMMA. Starting Jan. 1, MoM will broadcast a series of five-minute-long soundscapes (contributed by local artists) via an industrial-grade megaphone strapped to the Broadway side of the building. The question explored: “What is the soundtrack to 2021?” Please let it be the sound of people rubbing elbows again!

Some soundtracks have relevance across time and space. This week brings the citywide This Is Beethoven festival (through Dec. 19, free), featuring multiple musical streaming performances of works both by and inspired by the genius himself. Last night I tuned in for a beautiful livestream of Beethoven’s First Symphony by pianist Slava Gryaznov at Vashon Center for the Arts. Watch for more performances this week, including: Seattle Modern Orchestra, playing contemporary music as revolutionary as Beethoven’s was in his time; jazz composer Wayne Horvitz, honoring Beethoven’s improv skills; and Seattle Pro Musica, playing pieces by other deaf composers in a mixed bill aptly named Notes for an Uncertain Future.

The tattooed Ghost of Christmas Present meets Ebenezer Scrooge in this illustrated, innovative take on the classic 'Christmas Carol.' (Manual Cinema)

Ah, yes, that uncertain future bit. We have so much yet to see in terms of how the arts scene will bounce back from pandemic shock — how it will be forever changed, by both losses and innovation. ’Tis the season to commune with ghosts of our past, present and future, this year more than ever.

Speaking of seasonal ghosts, ACT Theatre has turned its beloved production of A Christmas Carol into an audio play this year, with actors recording lines in isolated “whisper booths” (through Dec. 27, “pay what you feel”). And last weekend I was especially taken with a new, thoroughly inventive take on the Charles Dickens classic, this one produced by Manual Cinema, out of Chicago. The company produces live theater using shadow puppetry and old school transparency projectors in combination with actors. Its Christmas Carol (Dec. 17-20) is performed live in Chicago — we watch in real time as holiday skeptic “Aunt Trudy” (N. LaQuis Harkins) attempts to reenact her recently deceased husband’s annual Dickens puppet show. It’s charming and clever and features a COVID-19 twist that’s quite moving.

So what would the Ghost of COVID Future have to tell us? Does this story have a happy ending in 2021? The hue gurus at Pantone Color Institute seem to be willing it so, with their recent selection for the trendsetting Color of the Year. Unusually, the experts picked two colors: “Ultimate Gray” (really basic gray) and “Illuminating” (a sunny yellow they might well have called “Vaccine”).

Leatrice Eiseman, Pantone’s Bainbridge Island-based executive director, announced, “The union of an enduring Ultimate Gray with the vibrant yellow Illuminating expresses a message of positivity supported by fortitude … this is a color combination that gives us resilience and hope.”

The choice received some flak online but maybe she’s onto something with that yellow springing forth from gray — like a sun emerging from behind a rocky moon, the days slowly stretching out after long, dark winter nights, people stepping out of isolation and into the light.

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