Monday, September 19, 2011

A River Runs Through It

All beauteous things for which we live
By laws of time and space decay.
But O, the very reason why
I clasp them, is because they die.

                   -William Johnson Cory 

            Something so puzzling about the humans is that we often become limited by the things that are meant to surround and live among us peacefully. Time and space—two things that Einstein calls “modes by which we think and not by which we live”—can take control of our lives, and they are concepts that can be altered and forgotten. Therefore, when these influential and sometimes overbearing notions can be taken out of the perspective they are usually experienced in and focused on, awakening experiences can occur.
            One of the modern world’s oldest juxtapositions has to be between the metropolitan world and the rural wilderness. Both of these realities were the inspiration for two recent musical creations. And while these two events seem incredibly different, both deal with concepts that are present in both of these contrasting realms—time and space.
            On Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of this past week, conductor Steve Schick, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), the choral group Crossing, and the percussion ensemble red fish blue fish presented composer James Dillon “Nine Rivers,” the music cycle, or what Dillon calls “musical tropes.” The body of work is for ensembles as varied as solo percussion to chorus. Dillon is a British composer who specializes in works for large ensembles and forces of sound. “Nine Rivers” is a cycle of nine pieces that last about three and a half hours together, and was performed at Columbia University’s Miller 
Theater, a space known for presenting contemporary music.

2011-12 Opening Night Preview: James Dillon's Nine Rivers from Miller Theatre on Vimeo.
How epic is that beginning.

ICE/ photo by Liz Linder
            “Nine Rivers” is, according to Schick, a “notion on the passing of time.” The piece is all one collective idea, but employs some of the most various sounds to express that one idea. The saying, “You can never step in the same river twice” from Heraclitus is connected to the aesthetic of the piece. Schick also said, “A river is something which is always there and never exactly the same from one second to another.” Time can also be described this way—it is always present, but it is indefinable as an object because it isn’t something concrete. Music is something that passes through time, but one could also look at music as an infinite collection of moments.
            In the same city, but on a highly different end of the musical performance spectrum, Arvo Pärt teamed up with the Oslo architecture firm Snøhetta to create the second edition, in Manhattan, of stillspotting nyc, an installation project that aims to create events and mechanisms that offer pause from the restlessness of New York (a very different version of this concept went up in Brooklyn, and the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island are in the future). stillspotting nyc is a product of the Guggenheim Museum’s Architecture and Urban Studies programming (along with other programs), and began when students from Columbia studied the variation of noise around New York using records of noise complaints. They even created an interactive map.  
For the second installment of the program’s two-year run, titled “To a Great City,” the architects of Snøhetta chose a series of places around Manhattan that “embody the concept of a central musical tone and extend the perception of sound into the realm of space,” the website described. Using weather balloons to alter the rooms’ acoustics and amount of occupied space, recordings of Pärt’s music play in the spaces as the patrons walk around. The idea is to recalibrate the senses and to notice how the space and sound interact. It also acts as a refuge from the city, being a paradise of controlled stillness.

Manhattan and its newest stillspots
Like “Nine Rivers,” “To a Great City” explores the fundamentals of an idea is almost too familiar to understand. The relationship of space and sound, while seemingly definable by physical standards, is an incredibly abstract idea. Spaces can affect that sound that is inside them, and sounds can affect those spaces. But because we as a species are unable to be void of space, as we ourselves occupy and are filled with space, it’s almost supernatural to study the concept on its own.
I know, I know, it’s a cliché example, but John Cage’s 4’33” is another way that sound, or the absence of controlled sound, forces us to explore what is around us. The piece is measured in human time, and the piece also demands that the listeners examine the space in which the expected music would reside with a refined eye. Like the ideas in “Nine Rivers,” the silence is never the same even though it exists. Like “To a Great City,” the space has been molded by the absence of sound and the little bits of sound that are constantly filling it at the same time.
How is it that the things that dictate our lives the most we don’t even understand? Well, I think this is good, in a way. If we became too knowledgeable of our surroundings, we might lose the sense of mystery that life has. Sometimes, moments like James Dillon’s “Nine Rivers” and stillspotting nyc/Arvo Pärt/Snøhetta’s “To a Great City” allow us to think about them more carefully. But, it took me about six seconds to write this sentence. And I don’t think I’ll ever know what that really means. 

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