Speak, Be Silent – Programme Note

‘Find the thing and it disappears’, warns the composer Rebecca Saunders. ‘Name the thing and it loses shape.’ In Saunders’ piece a visible trace we hear a piano keyboard squashed hard, before its sound backs away, as though embarrassed; a double bass glissandos downwards, as if being swallowed up; violin and flute essay a note, an idea, but seem to think better of it. Sub-groups of instruments step forward and draw back. We hear sounds brought tentatively into being, attempting to stand on stick-like legs, bearing weight for the first time. A lyrical line, already stretched thin, is coaxed a little further, slowly building in strength.

At the start of her score, , Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir writes to her players:

When you see a long sustained pitch, think of it as a fragile flower that you need to carry in your hands and walk the distance on a thin rope without dropping it or falling.

Her words recall a line at the start of Saunders’ score by the Italian novelist Italo Calvino, from Six Memos for the Next Millennium:

The word connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss.

Saunders’ sounds, like Calvino’s bridge, are fragile, thrown almost in desperation to reach something before it fades. Yet Thorvaldsdóttir’s thin rope, sustained by bass flute, bass clarinet and strings, spun out into tight melodic tendrils, and pierced by thunderous interruptions from the piano, conveys an inner assurance. Her title draws on the Icelandic word for serenity, as well as its Chinese equivalent, , which may also be rendered as Ann: the composer herself. Traces – in this case of self – can create a sense of tranquility, a safe harbour.

But what of the abyss itself? What empty space do these bridges cross?

We might see an answer in buildings by the Japanese architect Junya Ishigami. Almost invisible boxes of glass, they are held up by forests of thin white supports that give these otherwise empty spaces mass and drama. ‘Transparency is some kind of feeling of freedom, it’s not a physical thing’, Ishigami says of his buildings.

Ishigami

Inspired by them, Edmund Finnis in his Frame/Refrain surrounds a bustling, percussive piano, prepared with strips of blu-tack across its strings, with softly chugging string chords, a trumpet and clarinet duo of short, sliding glissandi, and a slowly warping background of brass and metallic percussion. As the individual parts repeat they circle around each other and the space between them, creating illusions of density and form out of components that seem hardly to be there.

Amidst these worlds of sonic fragility and uncertainty, the blast of brass and gongs at the start of Liza Lim’s Speak, Be Silent seem to sound with a potency from an entirely different place. Yet this is another illusion. Her work also describes a sort of bridge, between one thing and another, one person and the next: what Walt Whitman called ‘a vast similitude [that] interlocks all’. This is a concerto, but Lim’s solo violin frequently melts into or is smelted out of the ensemble surrounding it; the scale of Lim’s commitment to her vision is reflected in how un-violin-like the rest of that ensemble is, dominated by brass, piano and abrasive percussion.

All four pieces in tonight’s concert consider the delicate trick of connecting ourselves to things without them disappearing. Lim prefaces hers with one more trace, one more piece of advice; lines by the 13th-century Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi:

Just remember when you’re in union,
you don’t have to fear
that you’ll be drained.
The command comes to speak,
and you feel the ocean
moving through you.
Then comes, Be silent,
as when the rain stops,
and the trees in the orchard
begin to draw moisture
up into themselves.

Programme

Reflections on the Text Scores of Pauline Oliveros

Music entails listening. This may be a truism, but it is one that Pauline Oliveros’s music considers from every angle. What is listening? How is it different from hearing? Can we activate it, and then shape it at will? Can we compose music with it?

listen

Listening needs stillness. As does reading. ‘First imagine silence’ begins the score of One Sound Once. Oliveros’s scores are written as texts, rather than musical notation. Some are just a few lines long, some several pages. Klickitat Ride is a list of 108 instructions that are to be read out loud. David Tudor is a two-line epigram. Although often poetic, they are not poems. Oliveros has called them ‘attentional strategies’ – ways of listening and ways of responding. They don’t attempt to express anything as such, but invite the reader/listener to find out for herself what might happen if they pay attention in a particular way. They rarely require specialist musical knowledge: they can be read, and performed, by anyone. But to perform them properly requires discipline, attention and concentration.

Stillness entails breathing. Even at our stillest and most attentive, we are breathing. There is a meditative aspect to Oliveros’s work that applies to both performers and listeners. She calls this aspect ‘Deep Listening’, a form of listening practice cultivated through the sort of concentration and discipline her scores require, and intended to expand consciousness into ‘the whole space/time continuum of sound/silences’.

Breathing means movement. As we inhale and exhale our chest rises and falls. If we are practising Deep Listening, our mind similarly expands and contracts. Inner becomes outer; outer becomes inner. The sounds we are listening to exist in spatial relation to us and to each other. Quintessential and Pebble Music present catalogues of sounds, arranged by the performers like objects in a museum. In Rock Piece movement is even more explicit, with performers moving into, out of and around the space.

Movement means making. As the performers in Rock Piece move, they click pairs of stones together in their hands, ‘sounding out the environment in all directions’, attending to its different resonances and the relationship between their clicks and those of their colleagues. In Word Sound the movements are more abstract – ‘Say a word as a sound. / Say a sound as a word.’ read two lines of the score. Moving from words to sounds, turning one into the other makes a particular type of sound production, and a particular type of listening. When does a sound become a word?

Making entails music. As words and sounds transform into one another, or as clicking rocks echo around the performing space, we start to make music. Like John Cage, Oliveros blurs the boundaries between life and music: Deep Listening is inclusive listening, in which everything one might possibly hear is attended to. The pieces themselves are ways to reach that state. Deep Listening can only be intellectualized so far; in the end you have to do it. You have to listen.