- Eric Nathan, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose, et. al.: “Missing Words” (New Focus Recordings)
- Danielle Eva Schwob, PUBLIQuartet, et. al.: “Out of the Tunnel” (Innova)
- Judd Greenstein, yMusic: “Together” (New Amsterdam)
A few weeks ago, in this column, I wrote about that moment when you’re driving along a highway at consistent speed and you can’t tell what’s moving and what isn’t. Galileo described this sensation as relative motion (or would have if cars and highways existed in 17th-century Florence). Siddhartha Gautama described it as emptiness (or would have if cars and highways existed in 5th-century BCE India). It’s not the same exact sensation, but modern-day Germans have, along with cars and highways, a word for something similar: Eisenbahnscheingbewegung. Literally “railway-illusion-motion,” it’s described by writer Ben Schott as “the false sensation of movement when, looking out from a stationary train, you see another train depart.”
“Eisenbahnscheingbewegung” is one of those perfect words that describe an experience at once excruciatingly specific and broadly ubiquitous. Its allure also lies in its untranslatability which, paradoxically, is one of the reasons why Eric Nathan’s translation of it works so well. All glassy-eyed string glissandi and microtonal flutters of woodwind and brass, “Eisenbahnscheingbewegung” begins the composer’s “Missing Words I,” one of six suites assembled from 23 entries in Schott’s collection of untranslatable German words, Schottenfreude. It’s a slap of an opening; the unexpected jolt that shakes you awake after you lean your head against the cool pane of an Amtrak or Eurostar window and close your eyes. It feels wrong, disorienting, but also familiar: the screech of metal that we can place equally in Anna Karenina or on the A train; a horn call that is at home in both Steve Reich and the Berlin U-Bahn. Confusion slopes into acceleration, and just a few minutes later we cut into an entirely different sensation: Herbstlaubtrittvergnügen (“autumn-foliage-strike-fun”—that one’s a bit easier to piece together).
Like a sonic-Teutonic Magnetic Poetry set, Nathan’s “Missing Words” is a years-long collage that becomes as much an exercise in form and configuration as it is in musical translation. The components of each suite stand on their own, but next to each other they bring out strange resonances, like the echoes between the false sense of a train’s motion and the liberating chaos of running through a pile of leaves. What’s visually disparate is aurally similar.
With no movement exceeding six-and-a-half minutes and the average entry lasting half that, “Missing Words” has the appeal of a luxury chocolate sampler. Over the course of listening and relistening to it, I found myself jumping to individual moments from particular suites to get to their flavors first, like the midsection of piano-cello duet “Missing Words III.” Schott clarifies that a Straußmanöver (“ostrich manoeuver”) is the time-honored short-term defense strategy of denying reality. In his adaptation, Nathan suffuses the cello lines, arching ever upward, with the sort of nostalgia that encourages classical music’s own ostrich manoeuvers. What sounds like it could be a disjointed echo of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” soon becomes a much more pointed, deliberate, and warped quotation of “Hail to the Chief.” It sounds like John Philip Sousa suffering a napalm attack.
There’s a similar aspect of cognition and communication in “Out of the Tunnel,” written by Danielle Eva Schwob especially for PUBLIQuartet. And, reading Schwob’s August 2021 essay for The Strad on composing for strings, it’s not surprising to hear her describe the process in corporeal terms. “Strings to me have always felt analogous to the human voice in a way that makes them particularly challenging,” she writes. “The way we connect to them feels almost physiological—a mirroring of our own voices. It’s a natural expression of raw emotion—largely, in my opinion, due to the absence of frets, keys, or other means of separating notes from one another.”
This can, as Schwob adds, go “abysmally wrong” with the wrong fingerings or articulations. That isn’t the case, however, with “Out of the Tunnel.” The first movement, “Fast,” springs out of the gate—like Nathan’s moving train once it’s hit cruising velocity—and charges through flashes of landscapes. Finely choreographed harmonies in the “Slow” movement luxuriate in the mechanics of a more capacious tempo, in no apparent rush to re-accelerate.
“Out of the Tunnel” is just the opening gambit for an album of the same name, which features a quintet of other works by Schwob, some of which build on the theme of physical movement—such as “Traveling North,” featuring Simon Boyar and Nathalie Joachim. Others focus on the theme of visual movement. Building on the Pollock-like splashes of scenery that Schwob calls our attention to in “Out of the Tunnel,” she gives over to full synesthesia with the cello solo “Reflections on Francis Bacon” and the piano work “Reflections on Lucian Freud.” In this way, too, Schwob mirrors Nathan’s “Missing Words,” shaping something aural out of a visual medium, finding as much meaning in the method as in the final product.
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I can’t think of any train reference that connects “Together,” Judd Greenstein’s luminous new 13-minute work released as a single with yMusic, to the other albums this week. Although listening to it did put me in the mood to rewatch “Plan of the City,” a film that dips the old orange-and-yellow New York City subway cars in an amber of nostalgia, underscored by Greenstein’s 2009 work, “Change.” Both works begin with a solo flute—in fact, the same flutist in both recordings is Alex Sopp. Both layer instruments and miniature leitmotifs over this central heartbeat, establishing musical characters and building a narrative of connections and contrasts. Both feel oddly reflective of their times: “Change,” named for the old—and misquoted—Gandhi adage, captures a sense of Obama-era optimism that, in 2022, feels a bit like wearing a wool sweater in the middle of August.
But we’re not left in the cold with “Together.” The optimism of “Change” transmutes in Greenstein’s new work which, as the name suggests, is surrounded in the atmosphere of the last two years. Originally commissioned pre-pandemic for yMusic, Greenstein adapted the opening movement (“Together Not Together”) so that it could be played by the six ensemble members over video without needing to be in lockstep sync with one another. They’re Todd Rundgren’s parallel lines, moving along the spiral but never crossing over. In the past, Greenstein has described his music as “escalating up from silence,” which captures the kinetic movement here. That motion blooms into a polyglot’s kaleidoscope. Rather than fall apart like a construction site in Babel, however, the second and third movements bring the ensemble together both physically and sonically. Language, meaning, and music merge. ¶
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