Originally published in the program for the October 21, 2017 performance by the San Fransisco Contemporary Music Players. Reprinted with permission of SFCMP.
Phillipe Leroux, Postlude à l’Épais
Nicole Mitchell, Procession Time
Hans Abrahamsen, Schnee
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In Philippe Leroux’s work Postlude à l’Épais (“Postlude to the Thickness,” 2016), composed for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano, the instant contains eternity. And birds:
I was on a train. I was probably 17 years old. I had not slept at all the night before and I was tired. I remember having dozed off, my head against the window of the train, and before my eyes there was a flock of ravens in the sky. When I woke up, a few minutes or a few hours later, I was at the same place, in the same train, but the train was moving in the opposite direction and, by an amazing coincidence, […] my eyes fell on an identical flock of ravens that was following the trajectory of the first one, from the exact place where it stopped before I dozed off. [It was] as if both [moments] were in fact one [moment], uninterrupted, despite the passage of time and the fact that the train had changed direction. My falling asleep had been like a breach, an opening in the thickness of the temporal unfolding, which let me foresee another reality.
On the one hand, time like a train, moving ever toward a destination while leaving the past behind; on the other, a gapped time, elided and doubled back on itself, in which the past finds itself reunited with the present. We are unquestionably more familiar with the first conception, in which the present—much as in music itself—seems a parade of passing, and thus irretrievable, moments. Yet is it not possible, as Leroux’s experience suggests, to see the present as something more discontinuous? As something capable of leaping back into the past to annex old experiences? As something permeated with memory?
Postlude à l’Épais attempts to braid together these two temporalities, which compete for our attention to different degrees as the work progresses. As such, two different strands comprise the work: a string of 30 gradually morphing chords, based on frequency modulations of A, which punctuate the texture like rivets; and the episodes that come in between—a series of banshee-like outbursts in which the instruments trace similar gestural contours.
At the beginning, a raspy whisper of granular sound keeps us fixated on the moment, with little to mark the passing of time. The sound is continuous, and yet we might think of it instead as a chord repeated so rapidly that it blurs into an unbroken stream, destined to slow down continuously until the work’s end. That slowdown begins soon enough: a rapidly repeated chord percolates out of the continuous texture, breaking time into discrete moments and decelerating before the second strand begins weaving itself into the interstices. From here, the pattern is largely set: chord, episode, chord, episode, with the chords decreasing in frequency as the episodes increase in length.
What to listen for here? We could certainly hear the alternating strands as one continuous temporal flow: a chord, followed by an episode, followed by a chord, and so on. Yet we cannot forget about Leroux’s birds: the chords, so similar in shape and attack, have a way of recalling one another, of reaching back past the episodic material that separates them to form a kind of alternate present of their own. They are both a part of the unfolding temporal “thickness” of the work’s title—time perceived as an unbroken chain of linear events—but also aloof to it.
Other interpretations are surely possible here, and the listener is invited to indulge their own. But in this reading, at least, the birds’ moments are limited. As the chords decrease in frequency, leaving more and more time for the episodes to cast their own peculiar spell, a gradual shifting of temporal perspective occurs. The sun sets on our window-seat view onto an alternate temporal reality, releasing us into the thickness itself, in which we’re left to float with nary a raven in sight.
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From music about time, we move on to music about timelessness—or at least about the human rites and rituals that have, for centuries, so persistently embodied it. Inspired by the painting Ritual by the Harlem-born artist Norman Lewis (1909-1979), Nicole Mitchell’s Procession Time (2017)—heard here in its world premiere—delves into the curious rhythms of these age-old communal customs—in her words, “carnival, parade, protest, funeral march, dance party, birth ceremony, riot, lynch mob and even witch-hunt”—which are as old as time itself.
She wastes no time making a sobering point: where there is ritual, there is often blindness and ideology sustaining it, and perhaps nowhere more than in our rites of consumption. The first movement, “Carnival at the Cliff,” was written as Hurricanes Harvey and Irene battered the US coast, fueled by waters warmed by human-caused climate change. It addresses the fact that even though we mourn these tragedies, we immediately return to the lifestyles that nourish and sustain them, forgetting that every purchase has a price. “Carnival at the Cliff” is thus “joyous, yet off the mark, as I feel our delusions are,” she writes, “while we continue to participate in our own destruction.”
But what colors the death drive wears! In the movement “Ritual Conception,” Mitchell turns back to the aesthetic dimension of our rites, inspired here by the flame-like shapes and vivid hues that dance across Lewis’s painting. Hovering just at the edge of representation, Lewis’ figurations evoke bodies in procession wearing brilliant celebratory garb, arcing in a line across a sea of cerulean blue. The riot of color finds its analog in Mitchell’s music—but not without a touch of irony: what, in many cases, are these rituals if not sublimated forms of our desire to control nature? The movement’s through-composed form gives voice to that ravenous drive.
Not everyone is always in on the game, though, and in the movement “Ancestral Rights,” Mitchell assumes the position of outsider, considering rituals as though from a distance in order to defamiliarize their byzantine choreographies. Of particular interest, she notes, is the movement between formality and relaxation—between the enigmatic gestures of rituals themselves and the tension released once they have concluded—that characterize these forms. In the score, call and response patterns abound, evoking inscrutable circular geometries.
We end on an optimistic note in the final section, “Jubilation Resistance,” dedicated to the transformative power of joy. In Mitchell’s words, the movement was “informed by the buoyancy of the human spirit to elevate beyond our own ignorance, and to hopefully move towards a new approach of living where technology can embrace and not fight nature.” Joy resounds, but only by way of justice.
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In Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee (“Snow”), completed in 2008, we return to a universe not unlike that of Leroux’s Postlude à l’Épais in which time is content to circle back on itself, drawing the past back into the present. But winter has come here, and whereas Leroux’s work is a tightly wound, even schizophrenic, struggle between the vertical and the horizontal, Schnee is—for much of its length, at least—a desolate tundra in which the listener cannot help but dissolve into catatonic absorption. It is a breathtaking landscape—both fragile and fierce, crystalline and content to drift, seemingly without inertia. But, like snowflakes themselves, it is also not without structure. The model is an old one:
At the beginning of the nineties, I arranged some canons by Johann Sebastian Bach. […] I was completely immersed in this music, and arranged it with the idea that it should be repeated many, many times—as a sort of minimal music. […] Looking at the canons in this way opened up a new, animated world of time in circulation. Depending on how one looks at these canons, the music stands still, or moves forwards or backwards. As for my own work, a further idea crystallised: to write a piece that consists of canonic motion, and explores the universe of time.
Time in circulation, achieved through canonic motion—snow blowing in every dizzying direction. But the form of Schnee is, at least, straightforward: five pairs of canons, which (for the most part) grow progressively shorter in length, interspersed with occasional intermezzi during which the instruments microtonally detune. In the first group of each pair, various canonic statements and motives repeat with variation, only to be echoed in the second group with different instrumentation.
Yet “echo,” with its implications of a question and an answer or an original and a copy, is not quite right here. The intended relationship between the pairs, it turns out, is something more cumulative——or even spatial. Abrahamsen again:
[While writing these canons] I was very interested in the old stereoscopic technique from the late 19th century, where two almost identical pictures, photographed with just a small spatial displacement between them (like two stereo microphones), are placed next to one another. If one looks at them in an unfocused way, one sees a magical three-dimensional picture in the middle, as the sum of the other two.
We are encouraged, in other words, to hear the separate canon groups not so much as self-contained wholes but as incomplete, in a sense, as a musical part-objects that combine with their doubles to form some sort of illusive composite picture, or at least its equivalent in time. The work’s symmetrical instrumentation—two trios of winds and strings, two pianos, and a single percussionist in the middle—serves to amplify this “stereoscopic” effect. The same process often occurs on a smaller scale within the groups themselves, as canonic passages repeat with slight differences in their pitch content and in the closeness of their imitation, displacing and effacing one another in memory to congeal into various wholes.
That displacement effect is particularly apparent at the beginning, where a music of exquisite emptiness unfolds. Hushed repeated notes, high in the piano stratosphere, slowly condense around icy harmonics in the violins, dripping down and around to form the first canonic subject. (Abrahamsen instructs the pianist to play this fragile melody with alternating hands, perhaps to assure that each note sounds with deliberate attentiveness.)
In Group 2, we abandon the pristine snowscape of the first group and set out into a more foreboding winter. A staccato barrage of three-note motives, driven by flute and muted piano, pelts the ears like sleet. (An invigorating sleet, perhaps; the words “Es ist Schnee, es ist Winternacht!” are written as unsung lyrics in the score). In Group 3, inspired by the ice palace from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” shelter is at hand as detuned strings throb like gradients of diffuse light in a glacial interior. Group 4 is a blizzard of chromatic shrieks and pungent minor seconds, undergirded by sleigh bells that pay homage to the “Sleigh Ride” from Mozart’s Three German Dances, K.605. Finally, in Group 5, a kind of hypnotic, eerily mechanized calm sets in. Turning in place like a music-box ballerina, the music forms circles within circles, spinning at different rates in a wintery daze before evaporating into the emptiness with which it all began.