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Wallace Stevens “Uncontained Beauty”

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
01/18/2016 -  & January 23, 24 (Chicago), 27 (Richmond), 2016
Sleeping Giant: “Hand Eye” (New York premiere):
Christopher Cerrone: South Catalina
Andrew Norman: Mine, Mime, Meme
Robert Honstein: Conduit
Timo Andres: Checkered Shade
Ted Hearne: By-By Huey
Jacob Cooper: Cast

“eighth blackbird”: Nathalie Joachim (Flute), Michael J. Maccaferri (Clarinet), Yvonne Lam (Violin and viola), Nicholas Photinos (Cello), Matthew Duvall (Percussion), Lisa Kaplan (Piano)
Deborah Johnson for Candy Stations (Visual Designer)

Sleeping Giant (© Sleeping Giant)

If Wallace Stevens is the most musical American poet, then “eighth blackbird”, the sextet derived from Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, is amongst the most beautiful– contemporary musical ensembles in America. Their conceptions have the complexity of a Rube Goldberg invention, but the results have an unearthly simplicity.

Their latest New York premiere, Hand Eye (co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall), with manifold different parts, theoretically should clank along like an old jalopy. Yet the constituents blended into a velvet-smooth 80 uninterrupted minutes which surprised, delighted, and ultimately transported the listener to another sphere.

Quickly, we go through those constituents. First, “eighth blackbird” itself, six players of amazing dexterity, moving into endless patterns across the Zankel Hall stage.

Second, “Sleeping Giant”, six composers who work together to create full-blown music with tenuous (but inevitable) links. Each composer different yet each bound to a single idea.

Third, six pictures inspired by a collection in somebody’s foundation. (Since this Foundation refuses to allow a reproduction of even a single painting on this modest site, I see no reason to reproduce their name.) The pictures do not literally inspire the music in most cases, but at least unconsciously give impetus to the music.

For example, in one picture...(Oh, sorry, I better not go into names and artists. Moneyed foundations and their legal teams can be pretty unpleasant. Sorry, painters.)

Anyhow, finally, we have the visual design by Deborah Johnson a.k.a. Candy Station, shown at the top. The designs are projected onto a giant heptagon, elongated the length of the stage, like half a Mobius strip. Onto this, Ms. Johnson has created six motifs (actually far more, since each motive has its variations), each in different hues, each changing constantly according to the intensity of the music, inspired by the original paintings.

No single design has a literal meaning, yet we have an inevitable, almost instinctive implication. From the colors of a 1950’s jukebox to a gyroscope to black-and-white lines trilling along the screen in the last ten minutes of piano chords intercepted by sounds from the other artists. Ms Johnson has produced literally endless configurations

And no, that explanation above is hardly the exegesis from the reality of “Hand Eye” itself, so we go into the music of Sleeping Giant and their executors, “eighth blackbird”.

We begin with a darkened stage, clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri in the center tootling a few notes. From the wings come flutist Nathalie Joachim, percussionist Matthew Duvall, and pianist Lisa Kaplan. Ms Kaplan sets the musical stage with a basic work that resembles a Henry Cowell fuguing tune, but the other instruments quote, vary, describe, and fly off from that original choral foundation.

For the next five works, based on the five pictures, “eighth blackbird” offers a grab-bag of different styles. We have lines which pop out and hit the audience in the ear. We have meditational melodies that suddenly veer off as the artists themselves circle around the stage. Ms. Joachim takes her piccolo and swings through a storm of notes, while Mr. Duvall on the celesta and a great bass drum goes from the ethereal to drum pounding leading to a Mahleresque orchestral fortemento passage.

The last music may be based on the toys and gimcracks of Jacob Cooper’s Cast and it starts with some amazing sounds (a detuned clarinet arpeggio, an isolated flute muliphonic, a brush across the violin bridge)...and when one thinks all is finished, then “Hand Eye” has an astonishing long long coda.

In effect, the piano–which has played inside and outside the box, as well as the wooden struts–now starts a melodic, very consonant series of barely moving chords. One thinks of Morton Feldman, except that these sounds, with lighting images of Ms. Johnson, are partnered with sounds of the other instruments spread out over the stage.

Perhaps they are improvising, perhaps the composer has set out the exact notes. But one feels as if “Hand Eye” is traveling into its own sunset, a seemingly endless farewell. Of course it does end (with Haydnesque farewell by each player going into the wings). Yet one still remembers the sounds and images.

Like light, music and words unspoken (and like the Foundation’s paintings), the concert was impossible to reproduce in this tentative effect. The full house–filled with New York’s most astute composers and musicians–knew it had experienced a singular event.

Yet “eighth blackbird” is nothing if not singular. Wallace Stevens, the “lover of uncontained beauty”, methinks, would certainly have approved.

Harry Rolnick



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