The 21C’s Cinq à sept concert yesterday turned out to be an extraordinary event. Let’s see if I can say something coherent about the two personal highlights, the world premiere of Jordan Nobles’ work titled π, and Carla Huhtanen and Marion Newman performing parts of Saariaho’s Grammar of Dreams.
Commissioned by the RCM specifically for this festival, π was performed by an ensemble consisting of violin (Aysel Taghi-Zada), cello (Amahl Arulanandam), vibes (Dave Burns), flute (Tim Crouch) and piano (Adam Sherkin), plus a soprano (Carla Huhtanen). The composer said a few introductory words on how the work came about and how he—basically, randomly–got interested in using the numbers of the π as the blueprint for the composition. This was just enough to send me on a research spree on my own after I made it back home.
So let’s break it down. Stay with me, it’s worth it.
π – 3.1415(et endless cetera) is a math constant. You’ll remember this from elementary school: the circumference of a circle equals its diameter times π, that is, its diameter times 3.14. It’s an irrational number that just goes on and that computers now can specify to millions of digits, if you’re into that sort of thing. For practical, earthly purposes, the engineers and what-nots limit the number to a couple of digits past the decimal point.
But Nobles didn’t; he went some way into the number and thought, hmm, what if I took a scale—let’s say D minor harmonic (my source on what scale precisely it was is Carla Huhtanen via Twitter! Thanks Carla):
image source: BasicMusicTheory.com
…and give each of the notes one of the numbers appearing in the π. So the start note would get 1, its second would get 2, its third 3 and so on. Since the octave obvs consists of eight notes, the note that gets number 9 is the next one up. 0 is a pause.
But how far into the π to go? In Nobles’ words: I needed to stop somewhere, but where? He discovered a spot in π that has several nines bunched up together, and decided that would be it.
Upon consulting sites like One Million Digits of Pi (yes, such websites exist), it’s easy to track down where Nobles decided to end the piece:
And there you have it: the entire score.
Although the five instruments and the singer play/sing simultaneously, the notes that each performs are of different length. Only one of them actually reaches 999999 – the piano, which plays on at a good clip while others take their (own) time. The cello gets the longest notes and therefore the shortest score. Musicians are positioned around the audience and the soprano walks the circumference of the room while singing her part. As the piano approaches the end, each of the instrumentalists starts leaving the music by pronouncing in whisper the number instead of playing the note. One whispered number followed by a few notes at the instrument is followed by two whispered numbers, and so on, but without any regularity, completely unpredictably. By the time the pianist gets to play and say 999999, everybody else has stopped playing but a smattering of whispers of 9 join it from the ghosts-formerly-known-as-instruments from around the room.
But here comes the crux of the matter. None of these fun and games would matter one iota if musically the piece didn’t turn out to be the most devastating work I’ve heard in a long time. It comes at you in ripples of heart-breaking melancholy that you only gradually acknowledge as such—you find yourself sad, then sadder, than closer to tears, then struggling not to sob, and not really knowing why. I tried to analyze later why I was crushed by it to such a degree. It could be the playing out of the finite vs. the infinite: the work marks off a limited segment of (to our view) the infinite row; what happens during that segment of time happens by chance but non-negotiably, there is no controlling it or improving it; then each of the finitudes peters out. The 999999 is like a life flat-lining—the beep of no vital signs.
It could be also that we’re operating in the D minor scale. Nobles mentioned in the intro that he used a “tone row” and I concluded, completely baselessly, that it must be the twelve-tone row and that the notes used are the first 9 notes of the twelve-tone. Talk about finding music in the totally random, out of any and all keys, I thought! But it wasn’t twelve-tone; it was the scale known for its melancholy pedigree. However, its notes are used aleatorically. Does this not make it all fairly atonal, then? Probably doesn’t matter a whole lot. (Dear Jordan Nobles, if you ever read this: I was the incoherent individual who tried to tell you, before running away, that she was gutted by this “twelve tone” piece. You know that people can’t count when they’re overly emotional, right?)
At any rate. This concert will be one for the annals. I expect to be talking about it to people for years.
Also thanks to Carla Huhtanen and Marion Newman’s take on Saariaho fragments. Awful of me to put such a magic performance in the last short paragraph. What Saariaho did with Sylvia Plath’s poems is she used the actual words, but distilled them, or merged them, or extracted the syllables and put them through the wringer of extended vocal techniques and in that way brought to light that side of the life of words, the one not straightforwardly semantic and consciously understood. (The semiotic, Kristeva would say?) The soprano and the mezzo rocked this score consisting of nothing but challenges—and idiosyncratic markings. Here’s the photo of the score that Marion Newman posted on Twitter after the concert:
(With a special contribution by another singer, soprano Virginia Hatfield: “Gotta love the ‘sensual’ high B”.)