I Am Sitting In A Room

Commentary and thoughts on (mostly) classical music.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Informal Review: EAR Unit

Last Thursday the California EAR Unit played at Rice. At the end of the evening I felt like I'd heard an earful (bad pun stolen from fellow audience member) but that there was another dimension to the experience that I couldn't express consciously. Because I was reviewing the concert I spent the next morning thinking about this and compiling my mental notes. While in the shower I started to piece it together.

The EAR Unit ended with Frederic Rzewski's Coming Together, a piece I know well and the only one on the program I knew going in. The instrumental component of the Rzewski was fine, but the delivery of the text by the EAR Unit's clarinetist was disappointing. First of all, he was a vocal dead ringer for Michael Moore. This would have been distracting enough, but his delivery was dry, words were swallowed, and what dramatic shading there was was sporadic.

Despite all that, I found the performance really powerful. At first I figured my familiarity with the piece was compensating for the poor reading. Then I started to see threads in the overall design of the program that built up to Coming Together, making it the summation of the evening.

The pieces on the first half of the program were concerned with processing external stimuli. Amy Knoles' Squint was described in the program note as an aural complement of squinting one's eyes. The accompanying video extended the idea with night shots of road traffic and lighted directional arrow that gradually morphed from positive to negative images (or shots on damaged celluloid as in Decasia). Eric Chasalow's Suspicious Motives used real-time electronic processing to expand the sonorities of the live instruments, creating occasional disjunctions between the visual performance and the sounds produced. James Sellars' Go reveled in the rush of momentum that comes with high-speed freeway driving (something we don't experience much here in H-town).

The second half of the program turned inwards. Eve Beglarian's Cave sets part of an Eileen Myles poem that ends "a cave inside your soul may be the only place to go." The dynamic was quiet throughout, with sustained long tones supporting a repeated pop-based piano riff and Vicki Ray's whispered delivery of the poem a word or two at a time. This was followed by Kaija Saariaho's Cendres (Cinders), the strongest of the pieces that were unfamiliar to me. To borrow Aaron Einbond's description in San Francisco Classical Voice:
Rather than pursuing traditional thematic development, the distinguished Finnish-French composer draws the listener's attention to the beautifully-crafted, evolving tone-colors of the three instruments as they play with a range of standard and extended techniques. From the opening gesture, in which soft pizzicato morphs into a cello harmonic trill molto sul ponticello and back to a soft tremolo, the ensemble sculpted composite timbres with great care.

All of this set up Rzewski's Coming Together. From 1972, this probably counts as one of the earliest examples of post-minimalism, using minimalist processes towards extramusical ends to add layers of subtext to the words of Sam Melville. Melville was a left-wing activist jailed at Attica and killed during the prisoner riots - or, as some conspiracy theories have it, picked off by a sniper after the uprising (which he likely had a part in organizing) was quashed and control regained by the State. In a letter to his brother Melville wrote:

I think the combination of age and a greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. It's six months now and I can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. I am in excellent physical and emotional health. There are doubtless subtle surprises ahead but I feel secure and ready. As lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am I dealing with my environment. In the indifferent brutality, the incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men I can act with clarity and meaning. I am deliberate- sometimes calculating- seldom employing histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others. I read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.

Rzewski divided this text into its eight sentences and employed a variation of minimalist additive technique in its deployment. He called the process "squaring," in which "a melodic sequence is gradually built up by adding a note at a time, and then washed away by subtracting notes from the pattern once completed, in a slow, giant wave." As in the sequence: 1, 1-2, 1-2-3 ... 6-7-8, 7-8, 8.

The musical material also employs this squaring process on the thematic and structural levels. More than one commentator has noted that the steady stream of sixteenth notes playing only a pentatonic scale that is constantly unfolded and washed away is a likely metaphor for the confined cycles of prison life. The spoken text, unfolding in the same manner but on a slower temporal scale (each sentence is divided into units that are spoken one to a 4/4 measure), has a different effect. The listener, sensing the repetitions, spends the first half of the piece keying in on the phrase "I think," which recurs at greater distances of time as more of Melville's words are revealed. Once the first sentence is erased, the touchstone phrase becomes "the inevitable direction of my life," which begins to come more frequently as the squaring wave washes away.

As if to complement Rzewski's design, the first half of the EAR Unit's program was concerned with external input, corresponding to the metaphorical cycles of prison life in the (constantly active) instrumental component of Coming Together. Melville's words clearly come from the internal cave suggested by Eileen Myles and Eve Beglarian, from which Melville clinically observes the world of jailed and jailer.

Again, it's as though everything else played over the course of the evening contributed to amplifying the concepts of external and internal life which coexist in Coming Together. This enhanced the darkly ironic ending of Rzewski's piece, in which the driving piano part approaches the end of its last wave, converging on the G root of a minor pentatonic scale and sweeping the other instruments along in its wake as the final climax builds. As the voice of Melville is "feeling for the inevitable direction of my life" for the last time, the external forces finish their process and come to a sudden halt. In the loud reverberations that drop quickly to silence (thank you, Duncan Hall), that inevitable direction has been decided as Melville's life is abruptly cut off.

I'm not sure how likely it is that this design was intentionally built into the EAR Unit's programming, or if that's even a relevant issue. I also don't know how much of this I projected backward in time onto the concert experience as I was trying to account for the dimension I felt was missing in my understanding of it. But I will say that it made the evening come together (ack - another bad pun) for me in a pretty powerful way.

Any comments, thoughts, or tales of similar experience are welcome.

Updated for clarity and to add links.


At 10:12 AM, Blogger mev said...

Scanned the page with the letter from the book "Letters from Attica", and it is visible at



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