Dispatches of Music and Memory

Text & Photography · Date 06/23/2016

Ojai Postcard #1

On Pauline Oliveros’s “Sonic Meditations”

Sitting and listening to live music from a source I cannot see can be a strange experience. As a student at Oberlin, I spent a few half-hours staring at the front wall of Fairchild Chapel as friends and visiting luminaries played the famous organ from the loft behind the pews. Initially it was a disconcerting sensation, watching the blank gray stone as the musicians worked their many-handed magic from above, but after a while I learned to enjoy it. As a writer, it gave me a chance to only focus on the music as it reached me, worrying about the technicalities of performance later if such details were needed.

With this in mind I took a seat on the balcony of the Meditation Mount, high above the Ojai Valley, facing the drop-off and the nearest mountain soaring into the sky. The audience and most of the players were in the building behind me, glass doors on three of four walls flung open wide for sound and musicians to pass through. As the players of ICE followed Oliveros’s instructions, striking bells and gongs, creating whispering textures and jagged cells of melody, all I could see was the blooming yucca down the hill swaying in the wind, green dots of trees on the dusty yellow mountains, a pale gray early-morning sky slowly giving over to blue. I tried, and mostly succeeded, to resist the temptation to turn around to see exactly how the players were producing the sound, which fragments of song were Claire Chase playing a bird whistle and which were contributions from the unrehearsed southern California dawn chorus, members of which zipped through the air. I tried to lean back into the sound, not forward.

At one point, all the melodic instruments hovered on microtonal neighbors of the same pitch, moving higher and lower almost as one while the percussion rustled. Tiny variations in volume, timbre, and color brought the sound to life. I noticed the flowering yucca, and the white and pink flowers on the bushes around me caught my eye. I looked for bees but could find none.

Disquieting dissonances crept in, a drum rattled as if in fear, and another path opened. What if these are not bees, but drones swarming? And I realized, one of Nature’s most important messengers of life and rebirth, and one of humanity’s most barbaric messengers of death, share a name. The drone that brings life faces extinction, and the drone that brings death breeds and propagates so quickly.

Ojai Postcard #2

On Kaija Saariaho’s “Light and Matter”

Kivie Cahn-Lipman’s cello was dark, untethered, flying through the instrument’s lower register, and chills electrified my spine. His wired energy perfectly captured my feelings about New York, and the cold fire that pulses through me whenever I am in the city alone. The unrelenting, jangling grind of news scrolling across giant video screens, the clatter of the subway, jackhammers, and the moments of clear beauty in between. There is an urgency and tension in this piece that I have not often seen in Saariaho’s work.

I looked at the program notes, and I registered with little surprise that the piece was written in Manhattan. That city where I was born marks all that it touches, with the frenetic flicker of white street lamps and red sirens. To some, this feeling is a necessary drug, even soothing. To me, it is a sensation I enjoy occasionally, when I seek it out, but I do not think I could live on it.

Sick Puppy Postcard

On Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians”

Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” wasn’t my first encounter with new music, but it is the early encounter of which I have the most vivid memory. I was 17 years old. The night was unseasonably warm. I had been admitted to the emergency room with a kidney stone, unable to keep food down, unable to sleep. I had never been in such intense, sustained pain in my life. Even the pain after the corrective surgeries I had on my legs earlier that same year was bearable compared to what I went through curled up in the waiting room chair, waiting to be called. There wasn’t much they could do about the kidney stone directly, so they gave me some intense painkillers and anti-nausea medications and stuck an IV in my hand to hydrate me because I wasn’t able to take anything by mouth.

When I woke up an hour later, the hydration bag drained, I was floating, the world nebulous around me from the fatigue and the pain and the disorientation. I bundled myself into the back seat of the car and my father turned on the radio. And there was “Music for 18 Musicians,” and it sweetly pulsed through me, reminding me to breathe in, breathe out, breathe deep, and move with something bigger than myself. It ebbed and flowed as the instruments entered, exited, adjusted. We got home, I went upstairs and tuned in on my computer, which I put by the side of my bed—the piece was still playing—and I let the waves of sound wash me out to sea. Everything still hurt, and somehow I knew everything was going to be okay.

Subsequent listenings never had anything close to the same effect until tonight at Jordan Hall, my first time hearing the piece live. Callithumpian Consort was performing “Music for 18 Musicians,” as well as John Cage’s “Apartment House 1776,” as part of the annual SICPP (pronounced Sick Puppy). Watching the tireless mallets keep the music coursing along, seeing the musicians interact with each other, and being completely immersed in the sound was a truly amazing experience. At times the sheer volume was almost too intense to handle, but every time that thought flickered through my head, I knew it would soon erode, and so leaned back into it and let it carry me.

It was so much easier to pick out individual instruments and ideas than it was on the recordings, and the bright/dark contrasts were much more vivid. My ears played tricks on me as the sound bounced around Jordan; I was convinced for a few seconds that Gabriela Diaz’s bow was drawing the sound of four human voices out of her violin strings. After reading the composer’s detailed note, I found that deep breathing itself is written into the phases and phrases, pulsating notes for the duration of one or two breaths, a slow rise and fall. Is it any surprise that this music came to me and reminded me to breathe, during that long night five years ago? ¶