Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chamber(ed) Music

                I looked up the word “chamber” on trusty ol’ Having faith in my cluttered pool of accumulated definitions, I expected to find exactly what I was looking for. However, as dictionaries usually are, the descriptions were quite technical with total abandonment of emotion (“a room in a palace or official residence”). Usually, when I imagine a chamber, I think of something more intimate and necessary, like a lung, a chest of old items, a cello—or, appropriately, chamber music. I don’t have to go to to know what the definition of “chamber music” is, but I also think the genre it makes us often think of isn’t the only type of music the name can be connected to. We think of sound waves as concepts that move outward, like a shout or a radio wave being broadcasted to millions. But we also all know that not all emotions are meant to be broadcasted—I bet the majority of feelings reside in the inner walls of our bodies. So, if music, in many cases, is the equivalent to emotion, it most certainly can be trapped inside something too—a chamber? Now, the type of music I’m thinking of isn’t played out of speakers enclosed in a box or anything like that; but there’s almost this other realm of aural expression that implodes on itself. Whether this music is an impression of a literal chamber, a metaphorical chamber, or is something we ourselves can place inside our own chambers of thought and reception, it all is empathetic—it makes us place ourselves inside of the cavity it builds instead of building the cavity around us. This act is difficult, but the act of building the chamber is, too.

                The first piece that got me thinking of this concept was Missy Mazzoli’s “Cathedral City,” performed by her five-person, all-female classical band Victoire. This piece eases into the area of “Neochamber music” gently by presenting a literal depiction of a chamber. When I think of a chamber, as stated before, it seems like a special place filled with emotions and preserved feelings. Cathedrals are filled with scripture, songs, reverberations, and beliefs. The piece begins with timbres one would not be surprised to hear coming out of a church. However, this feeling only lasts purely for a few seconds as it is quickly accompanied by a rattling twitch and occasional electronic bleeps. Then, in come all the musicians, playing what can be classified as neither classical nor alternative music singlehandedly, but more like somewhere in between.   There is a light beat backing the ensemble and electronics, and its muffled nature sounds like a heartbeat. The other internal sounds (the almost back-of-the-brain vocals, the ambiguous recording of a speaking voice, the everlasting, light, cymbal-like touches, the phantom noises…) centralize the piece somewhere inside the listener, making us feel like a box where all these sounds can explode safely, leaving all the outside objects untouched. “Cathedral City” does in fact have fugue elements, but the whole tone of the piece doesn’t clue the listener into that fact upfront. Mazzoli’s piece almost stops time.


             While Mazzoli’s piece relates to a chamber not only emotionally, but architecturally, the next piece I found to be similar to these types of works was Sarah Kirkland Snider’s piece “I Died of Waiting.” The piece comes from a song cycle called Penelope (inspired by the music theater piece by the same name) composed by Snider, inspired by Homer’s epic The Odyssey. Along with Snider’s music (which was played by the chamber orchestra Signal and conducted by Brad Lubman), the vocals were written by playwright McLaughlin and sung by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond. Penelope is unlike anything heard before. It’s a story, a reflection, and a collection of wonderful, unique music. The music of Penelope fits in with these thoughts of “chamber” music because of the emotions behind the story. Penelope, Odysseus’s wife in The Odyssey, was left behind at her home, waiting for her husband to return from his voyage, for 20 years. During all that time, she was kept in her palace, staying loyal to her husband. While the music theater piece written by McLaughlin and Snider follows a different plot, the themes are the same. The music reflects emotions of loneliness, abandonment, and struggle. While the pieces with Worden’s voice are haunting and very well worth listening to, the piece “I Died of Waiting,” the one that I felt fit into this category best, has no vocals and is very short (about 1:15). In the background are incredibly far-off shouts of despair, barely heard, and weaved inside of the mainly string instrument work are sentimental sounds, like the creaking of an old tree, the crackling of a fire, and seagulls. The first half of the piece is dominated by lonely strokes of the upper register string instruments accompanied by a three-note pizzicato plug by the cello. Eventually, all the pre-recorded sounds fade out for a few seconds while the strings collect into a moody, heart-wrenching chord, and the piece is carried out by electronics. The title and overall emotion of the piece are extremely introverted. By taking sounds from the outside world that remind the title character of her loved one and placing them in this thought-piece, it makes “I Died of Waiting” like a memory by itself—certainly something that would reside in a chamber.

                The final piece of captured music is by an ambient duo titled itsnotyouitsme (spaces and capitals purposefully omitted), made up of Caleb Burhans (violinist) and Grey McMurray (guitarist). Ambient music is a genre that can be formed to any emotion—because it is so malleable to begin with, any piece of ambient music can be placed inside of the body or extremely far away from the body. Technically, a listener could completely disagree with my opinion, but I believe that the duo’s track “we are the sons of our fathers” is one that resonates more on the inside, in the chambers of the body, in all the dark and empty spaces. The tones are so subtle and suppressed during the attacks, but then are let loose; it’s like the tones are condensed and placed in a chamber, only to grow once enclosed. Or, maybe more visually, like crumpling up a piece of paper and having it slowly open up like a flower. itsnotyouitsme does a great job of keeping their tracks open to interpretation while having definite views of where their music is going. I bet if you dictionary-ed “chamber music,” itsnotyouitsme would not come up. But are they a different kind?
                Sound waves are produced often with the purpose of traveling somewhere outside of the source. We have microphones, speakers, amplifiers; all the gear that makes sure we are heard. But sometimes, it’s best if we just stay inside ourselves for a little while. Our body itself is a chamber, and we have many chambers inside that chamber: our brain, our lungs, our hearts, and others. “Chamber music” as a common genre is something almost every major composer has written for. But maybe it’s “chambered” music that is another type. The type that doesn’t need to go anywhere. The type that is comfortable where it was conceived. 

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