Sometimes words fail us. They cannot contain the depth of our grief, the many shades of our sorrow, or the complexities of conflicting emotions. They cannot convey all the permeations of anxiety that inhabit our bodies in the face of what is beyond our control. But the tonalities and timbres of sound and music offer us another realm of non-verbal expression and comprehension. The voice alone carries meaning that we can understand even when we don’t speak the language, or when conversing with another species. And a sound-producing object can be an instrument of language, an individual “voice” in a chorus of voices engaged in both an expressive discourse and an introspective exploration of states of feeling.
This is what the very contemporary and surprisingly adventurous Isaura String Quartet (two violins, a viola, and a cello) brought us in their newest concert performance hum. The first half of the program was an effective four-part sonic dissertation on the state of our collective psyches in these dark times. Jarring, dissonant and melancholy, it was unsentimental in its mournfulness, unapologetic in its lamentation and its discord. Each of the compositions by four different composers was given its own distinctive performance character and dramatically lit visual staging, thus offering different perspectives within a consistent style.
In Darkness Is Not Well Lit (2016) composed by Niccole Lizée, the musicians were seated on separate raised platforms at the back half of the left side of the stage, flanked on one side by a large screen suggesting a window with shafts of light cast through slatted venetian blinds. Surrounded by darkness, each musician was accompanied by a standing electric fan not simply as a visual effect but as a performer whirring and glistening in the stark high-contrast film noir lighting. But instead of the jazz-inflected wail of a tenor sax came the strings wispy breath of air inhaled and sent back in a plaintive note, multiplying into a chorus, an exhalation of smoke and fog and a somber song of sighs and moans. And then a conversation, rhythmic syllabic chatter, an interplay of voices, a dialogue of resonant hollow breath and high-pitched phrases, dark spaces and flashes of light, the fans alone, then the opaque silence of a window shut. The musicians left the stage.
What followed was an interlude that was almost like a performance art piece in itself as stage hands broke down the set and assembled a new one. Speakers were loaded on carts, platforms dismantled and moved out, seats reset at the front, and screens rolled out and bathed in green light. All seemed carefully choreographed and lit so as to create anticipation for what would come next.
The short String Quartet (2014) composed by Laura Steenberge and inspired by four different animals — wolves, whales, crows, and cuttlefish, opened with a long extended bass tone that was more a deep hum than a howl. Then a variety of moans in different pitches, some barely audible, others a high-pitched whine, or a piercing vibrato, punctuated by a deep throbbing drone and dark spaces. There were sharp upper octave cries and dissonant interjections, until all four instruments were full-throated, and a call and response lament became a chorus of overlapping alternating voices that suggested an imminent threat, a sense of impending danger, as if the phosphorescent green, synthetic glow of the screens in the background was an invasive toxic substance. A dark reminder that we too may become an endangered species whose cry in the night may be indistinguishable from the other inhabitants of our planet.
The third piece, Quartet For The Beginning Of A Time (2019) by David Rosenboom was a new work about “a time collapsing and a time emerging, a contemplation about the nature of change in the evolution of life, our lives, and our times.” A deeply mournful work full of sorrow, rife with tension, conflict and protest, it speaks to this moment in history and gives voice to our pervasive anxieties, pain and struggle without a single word spoken. And fittingly the screens turned deep flame red. The strings evoked dusky late night cries full of undertones and overtones, the whistle of a tea kettle joined by plaintive women’s voices carrying the weight of the world that turn into a round table discussion full of discord. They argue and the conversation becomes more heated. They take jabs at each other across the metaphorical table, be it family or public meeting, friends and foes, men and women, old and young. The temperature rises, combative verbal punches are exchanged in a clamor of discontent, anger and fear exposed. Then comes a pause, a hushed whimper, small cries in the interim space, a moment of clarity before the argument builds up again into a collision of pitches, a quantum mass imploding into SILENCE. The single pluck of a string stops time. It falls at the speed of light into the abyss. It comes out on the other side with the force of gravity in a shattering group scream. It is a collective recognition of shared despair (we are all in this together) a revelation that resolves and releases itself into a long extended synchronous moan. Or perhaps, it was an exalted deep sigh slowly exhaled into the future. Either way this piece was felt in the body, in the nerves and sinews, under the ribcage, and in the throat. All this from a remarkable string quartet that extended the syntactical and sonic range of their instruments!
In the fourth piece in this set, Alchemies (2019) by Carmina Escobar and Sean Deyoe, the architecture of light and shadow became a stage for the sound. Square and circular spotlights theatrically framed solos, duets and trios as the musicians changed positions. Monologues and dialogues were more sharply defined, given moments of individual character and interplay. What begins as a single high-pitched hum, an insect-like buzzing drone grows into a full volume screaming mass. Three musicians freeze in shadow, one opens her mouth in a silent scream, then the three pluck their strings back and forth. In another frame two are lit in the screen boxes, and a violin emits a soprano moan like a meowing cat. Violet blue light leads into a deep bass growl, long howls, a burst of angry iterations. The squares give way to siren sounds, warnings and a melancholy calling out, a repeating sob, screeching release and mournful acceptance. The final four circles hold the indignation, protest and despair of an open-mouthed silent scream that is also a great exhalation.
This is not the kind of music that leaves you uplifted. Instead it is cathartic in that expresses all the held-in emotions and unspoken anxieties that do battle in our bodies, the bristling tensions that fill the air around us, the deep sense that the world is coming undone and we can’t stop it. It carries the collective scream and the sob waiting to spew forth. It is dissonant, atonal, uncomfortable and utterly satisfying with the relief of having been spoken for.
There was a second half to the program. Behind the Wallpaper a work by Alex Temple included a singer and lyrics that did not carry the same impact despite the virtuosity of the Isaura Quartet musicians. While the Quartet provided a cinematic soundtrack to the story with multiple musical references, the ten-verse art song suffered from the performance of the singer who brought no dramatic arc, emotional resonance or illuminating sense of mystery to the narrative that was supposedly about the experience of personal transformation and altered perception. Instead she had the increasingly distracting mannerism of tossing her hair with her hand from one side to the other between each verse as if to punctuate it. Sometimes words become superfluous when they aren’t conveyed with the full potential of their meaning.
So here is to 2020 in the hope that we will listen deeply and recognize the difference between the truth and the lie in the tonalities and pitches of the speaker’s voice.
COVER PHOTO: STEVEN GUNTHER. MONTAGES: JACKI APPLE
Isaura String Quartet: hum
Emily Call, violin, Madeline Falcone, violin, Jonathan Morgan, viola, Betsy Rettig, cello
December 11, 2019
REDCAT / Downtown L.A.