Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Beast

Zaka (zo-ko) v.  To do the following almost
simultaneously and with great speed:  zap, sock,
race, turn, drop, sprint.   

“Wait…” You are probably thinking right now, “I’ve never heard that word.” But don’t worry; you haven’t been deprived of hidden vocabulary. The reason that you haven’t heard this word before is because, well, it doesn’t really exist. The only “zaka” I’ve ever heard of are the relief groups in Israel, and that certainly has nothing to do with zaps or sprints. Despite the omission of this should-be-official-by-now word from the “actual” dictionary, let’s hope it starts becoming a universal term in the musical one. Because it certainly deserves it.
“Zaka” in this sense pertains to the chamber piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Hidgon. It was commissioned for a series of works for Meet the Composer Commissioning Music/USA. I hadn’t heard a lot about Hidgon until recently, and in the past few weeks I’ve seen Hilary Hahn, eighth blackbird, and other names linked up with hers. Jennifer’s pieces are sensitive and varied; they can be rhythmically centered (like in “Rhythm Stand” and “Percussion Concerto,” but that’s a little obvious), abstract (“Piano Trio,” “running the edgE”), or slightly impressionistic (“blue cathedral”). She has a talent for keeping her style contemporary and innovative while engaging the listener throughout the entire piece. I have found that a fair amount of new composers seem to add modern techniques and sounds just to be modern-sounding, and it sometimes sounds forced and unnecessary. But Hidgon utilizes every note to its fullest potential; everything sounds natural and crucial. She’s like a baker who’s breads are crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and don’t need a lot of butter.

Hidgon and her cat, Beau (by Candice DiCarlo)
My most recent mission was to listen to eighth blackbird’s “Strange and Imaginary Animals” album today, from second one to second 4,319. It was easily the warmest day of the year so far, and the walk I took with the album streaming into my ears was filled with bare, ominous trees and a setting but glaring sun. “Zaka” is the first piece on 8BB’s album. It begins with a rhythmic, almost tribal, prodding of a prepared piano, alternating on C sharp and A (Lisa Kaplan’s accurate and vigorous playing is perfect for these type of pieces). Quickly after this begins, in comes the scratching of a violin and the native-sounding trills of the clarinet and flute along with primal percussion. The piece has a steady, gung-ho pace but never gets forte until a bit later on. It’s hushed, like a predator sneaking up on prey. Then, suddenly, the predator begins to race as the cymbals are brought in and the instruments individually hammer on their instruments (one of the many climaxes is the flute hopping from a middle-range E to an upper-range D). The roller coaster of emotions is present for a while, and it keeps the listener on their feet for about the first half of the piece. This half fits in perfectly with the album title—the rumblings on the piano, the glissandos on the strings, and the skittering percussion sound like an apocalyptic forest in the midst of chaos (the best kind possible). It also brought to mind the book Lord of the Flies, especially the ending man-hunt section when Ralph is being chased through the burning forest by the rest of the boys.

"Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!"

However, these emotions quickly and seamlessly die down, only to be followed by concrete, calming, and seemingly hollow chords and octaves from the non-prepared piano. Layered over are the contrapuntal melodic lines from the violin, flute, clarinet, cello, and triangle. This section is wholeheartedly melancholy without ever having to resort to solely minor tones. It could easily accompany a drive through New England, abundant trees closing to isolate. I thought of the cinematography in the movies “Michael Clayton” and “In Bruges,” with their earthy and somewhat metallic colors. But I was mostly reminded of the strings in “Quiet City” by Copland, reflecting metropolitan yet macrobiotic timbres.
Shortly after the main primitive feelings emerge again, this time a bit more restrained, revisiting the calm themes from time to time. A rolling C-B, C-B, A-A flat, A-A flat pattern rushes the instruments towards the end, finishing with two drum hits. A wipe of the forehead is pretty necessary afterwards.
From Lord of the Flies to Copland to “In Bruges” and back, Jennifer Hidgon completely succeeds in creating a chamber piece that never loses its listeners’ interests. On my walk with “Strange and Imaginary Animals” I realized that landscapes can handle any emotion thrown at them, and “Zaka” was the perfect workout. When the primitive, hunting themes were pumping into my ears, I quickened my step and felt like prey to the looming, desolate trees. But when the New England-esque sounds presented themselves, I slowed down and felt an omnipresent yet melancholy calm, like an all-seeing eye. Maybe next year we’ll open up our freshly printed Oxford Dictionaries and find Hidgon’s word there in the last few pages. If not, we can feel sorry for the people who will never be able to find that perfect word for those zaka moments. 

No comments:

Post a Comment