Last night the concert performances for the 2016 Outsound New Music Summit got under way at the Community Music Center in the Mission. This was the first in a series of five evening events, each of which offers two sets and all with an introductory Q&A, usually with the composers. Festival Director Rent Romus introduced the series observing that he wanted to move from the three-set format of past seasons by spreading a sequence of two-set programs across five nights to allow listeners to process fewer new events in a single evening. This was a wise strategy; but I must confess that my personal experience has always been that, when I get so wrapped up in the many fascinating aspects of one set, I am rarely in the best of shape to accommodate any further input!
This was the case last night with Brett Carson’s Mysterious Descent. While I was definitely intrigued by what Dan Plonsey had to say about his composition for the second set, “On His Shoulders Stands No One,” Carson had already stretched my powers of retention during the first set. Now it is “the morning after,” all the many stimuli of Mysterious Descent are swirling around in my head, and I have to face the task of putting all of that swirl into a coherent structure of mere words.
The basic “facts” behind this composition are relatively spare. It is a song cycle in twelve movements, “based on the extant texts of the Idnat Ikh-ôhintsôsh.” Carson said little about that source, other than that it was ancient and survived only in fragments. He did not even identify the language in which the fragments were written. However, the operative phrase is “based on.” The words for Mysterious Descent are spoken, sung, and chanted; and those words alternate between English (at different levels of clarity depending on the setting) and syllabic constructions that appear to have been of the composer’s own invention. The title refers to “the volatile and absurd descent into the darkness of the Self;” and in this case the operative words are “volatile” and “darkness.”
The music itself appears to have been throughly composed, although there may have been opportunities for improvisation. It was scored for a quartet and written with last night’s performers in mind. Carson himself spent most of his time behind a piano keyboard. David Katz delivered most of the text from behind a music stand, but his execution was frequently physical as well as vocal, often enhanced through changes in the lighting. The other instrumentalists were violinist Mia Bella D’Augelli and percussionist Nava Dunkelman, but all four performers were required to play at least one percussion instrument. In addition, all four of them contributed to some of the recitations of portions of the text.
Carson cited Anthony Braxton, John Cage, and Olivier Messiaen as sources for the architecture of his composition. The use of a quartet clearly recalls Messiaen’s “Quatour pour la fin du temps,” even if the instrumentation is different and the use of text is more explicit. During the Q&A he cited Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music; and, while some of the pieces seemed to emerge from an underlying pulse, the use of pulse was not as explicit or pervasive as it was in Braxton’s work. Cage, of course, was a pioneer in using percussion as melodic instruments, even when the instruments lacked pitch; and his architectural approach tended to work with mapping out divisions of time, which he would then fill with different forms of content. It is not difficult to assume that a similar strategy was in play in at least some of the movements of Mysterious Descent, if not all of them.
As to the “semantics” of the descent itself, the very idea of meaning tended to take a secondary role behind Carson’s command of mustering a wide diversity of sonorities to occupy his architectural frameworks. Much of the impact of the music came from the intensity of focus engaged by each of the performers. Carson had clearly set major challenges for all of them (including himself). As she almost always is, Dunkelman was outstanding in her command of the full range of dynamic levels required for her percussion part. D’Augelli, on the other hand, had to elicit a wide variety of sonorities from her violin, primarily through a variety of bowing techniques. However, she was at her most impressive when she had to follow one of Carson’s melodic lines at the keyboard by playing in parallel quarter-tone intervals. (On the basis of her performance over the entire composition, I am quite confident that this was not a problem with pitch. She was right on the money with all of her other pitch selections, so it is reasonable to assume that those quarter tones were specified in the score.) Finally, Katz knew how to engage techniques of physical delivery when the words were at their least clear.
Finally, it is important to note that, unlike some of the “song cycles” of the nineteenth century, Carson’s approach to the text really was cyclic. In the opening text Katz tells a story about going down to the kitchen in the middle of the night to get a glass of water and encountering an elephant. Sure enough, the elephant returns in the final movement of the composition. Perhaps it is the underlying metaphor for the entire composition. The concept of an “elephant in the room” is a favorite metaphor for a topic that is left unspoken, often out of fear. That may well be what Carson had in mind with respect to that “darkness of Self.” The music tried to say things that, quite possibly, most of us would prefer not to put into words, either out of fear for what those words would reveal or by dint of our own weak command of language when such matters are involved. Perhaps the mystery of Carson’s descent is resolved when we recognize that the elephant really is in the room.