Cosmophony

Rachel Iwaasa performed her Cosmophony set for us at the Western Front last night.  The set is compromised of a set of pieces composed by local composers using the planets of the solar system as subject matter centered around George Crumb’s Makrokosmos.  To aid in the narrative, an image of each stellar artifact was modestly animated and projected on to a screen on the stage.

This was ambitious pianism.  Even the more spartanly textured pieces (Marci Rabe’s Venus comes immediately to mind) had the challenge of painting a fragile pianissimo for an audience attentive enough for a marimba made of sewing needles.  A non-musician audience member (How many of THOSE do you find at a new music concert these days?) remarked to me at intermission on the feat of memory we witnessed.  There was a lot of music, for sure.  You could argue that one of the dangers with a long set of music in this idiom would be a strain on the audience’s attention span but I never felt like there was too much being asked of the listener.  Variety was an ally here.

What little music of Crumb’s I’ve heard brings to mind episodes of tripping mystics going out into the desert do dose mescaline and other recreational chemical condiments.  There’s an earthiness to his music that seems in conflict with the sound world his music inhabits.  Harmonies crash in a manner with a freedom that brings to mind academia.  Not mysticism.  Gabbing with people at half-time made me realize this sentiment wasn’t unique to me.

The most powerful moment for me was the final movement of the Crumb and it involved the screen at the back of the stage upon-which narrative-aiding images were broadcast throughout the evening.  The practical application was to guide us through the first half of the set.  Between each piece, the composer’s name and the title would be shown, followed by a modest animation of the piece’s subject matter.  Text was done away with in Makrokosmos and I quickly tuned out the screen and focused on the music.  I had essentially forgotten the projections were even happening until the final movement.  During the Agnus Dei, an image of the Earth was projected.  This might seem like a cheeky bookend to a concert about the cosmos but it takes on a more lugubrious vibe if you know the translation of the text (Intoned for us in drones and whispers):

Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

Agnus Dei

One couldn’t help but invoke the pummeling we’ve been delivering to our little planet for the past umpteen generations.  It’s probably unnecessary to throw a spotlight on specifics, but I couldn’t help but feel I was witnessing a very public display of the very narrative that has been going on inside my head for the past few years.  There was an undeniable aroma of a very real and frightening desperation about it.

Good concert.  Where the hell were you?

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