Monday, August 21, 2017

The Quietude of Stephen Whittington’s Quartet Music

This past Friday Cold Blue Music released its second recording of compositions by Australian composer Stephen Whittington performed by the Zephyr Quartet, whose members are violinists Belinda Gehlert and Emily Tulloch, violist Jason Thomas, and cellist Hillary Kleinig. The ensemble is also based in Australia, and recordings took place at the University of Adelaide in September of last year. This was Cold Blue’s second album of Zephyr playing Whittington’s music, the first having been Music for Airport Furniture (presumably a witty nod to both Erik Satie and Brian Eno), which was released in 2013.

The title of the new album is Windmill, which is also the title of the second of two compositions on the CD. The first is a seven-movement suite entitled …from a thatched hut, while “Windmill” is a single movement slightly less than ten minutes in duration. Both pieces may be said to be based on impressions; but only “Windmill” derives from the visual. The impression of …from a thatched hut is more cultural in nature, dealing with Chinese scholars of the past that lived as hermits (anchorites without any of the Christian connotations).

The windmills that Whittington had in mind are those constructed in isolated areas in order to bring underground sources of water to the surface. When farming first began to be practiced west of the Mississippi River, just about every individual farm depended on such a windmill. Any number of movies captured the haunting qualities of the creaking sounds made by both the rotating blades and the pumping mechanism.

Whittington tried to capture those sounds in “Windmill;” and, allowing him the benefit of artistic license, he did a pretty good job. However, what makes the piece particularly compelling is what might be called its rhetoric of isolation. The suggestion is that, on any given farm, it is often the case that the windmill is the only source of sound; and, once Whittington establishes the nature of that sound, he punctuates it with extended periods of silence. Those silences blur the boundary of when the piece actually ends, an effect that is even spookier when one is listening to a recording than when one is watching the piece being performed.

The title of …from a thatched hut comes from two of those hermits evoked by the music. The first of these was Bai Juyi, who was a successful politician until a change in the balance of power forced him into exile. Since he was a devoted practitioner of Zen, he saw exile as an opportunity to think on less worldly matters; and he documented his thoughts in the book Record of the Thatched Hut on Mount Lu. Whittington’s other source is the Song dynasty landscape painter Xia Gui, known for painting hand scrolls of prodigious length. One of these was called Twelve Views from a Thatched Hut.

Those familiar with Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, a book compiled by Paul Reps from a variety of sources of Zen and pre-Zen writing, will probably be familiar with the sorts of hermits that inspired Whittington to compose …from a thatched hut. (Those who do not know the book may still know some of the source material, since John Cage appropriated many of the anecdotes for “marginalia” in several of his books.) In many ways Whittington’s suite makes for excellent music to accompany reading Reps’ book. Indeed, Cage’s own autobiographical statement mentions the Indian singer Gira Sarabhai as one of his sources of inspiration: “The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.” It is not unreasonable to approach …from a thatched hut through its capacity “to sober and quiet the mind,” resulting in greater susceptibility to the Zen teachings that Reps documented.

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