“Dead man’s tuning” was traditionally used at funerals to magnify sound, the composer and violist Jessica Meyer explained to an audience that surrounded her onstage during a Miller Theatre pop-up concert by counter)induction on October 29. An Appalachian method of retuning a stringed instrument so that some of the strings match pitch, yielding greater resonance, dead man’s tuning took a somber center stage as cellist Caleb van der Swaagh performed Meyer’s Released, a piece imagining the moments just before death. The performance was nothing less than entrancing, as van der Swaagh plucked the gnarly open strings of his cello and bowed the lyrical melodies full of sorrow.
counter)induction, an ensemble dedicated to the performance of contemporary chamber music, presented an hour-long program of Meyer’s recent works with engrossing vigor. Meyer, the ensemble’s violist, began composing five years ago, and in those five years has established herself as a powerful force in contemporary classical music: her recently released second album, Ring Out, debuted at #1 on the Billboard traditional classical charts. The album’s visceral compositions, which employ a broad palette of techniques and a variety of ensemble configurations, were brought to life onstage by counter)induction’s zeal.
The opening piece, But Not Until, was a duet for viola and cello inspired by a quote from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.” Performed by Meyer and van der Swaagh, the piece began with a fiery passage that simmered down into a wandering cello melody as the viola played scratchy sul ponticello. At one point, wild rolled chords burst out of quietude, Meyer and van der Swaagh untamed yet completely in sync. The roller-coaster music mimicked its ominous namesake quote with a palpable tenseness.
Only a Beginning, a duet for Cuckson and Meyer, relied on a conversational partnership to convey the message of the music, leaning into the concert’s intimacy—a quality made easy that evening by the theater’s seating arrangement. Probing the meaning of sacrifice, the duet began with a wandering, mournful theme that eventually opened up to vigorous angst. At one point Cuckson and Meyer existed in separate musical worlds, but through impeccable communication they were able to create a cohesive sound. The piece ended with hope: Cuckson played a delicate, major melody with minimal vibrato and Meyer held a low open C, the sound fading away into silence.
I Only Speak of the Sun, a three-movement string trio based on a Rumi ode, immediately exploded with radiance. Each movement centered on a different line from the poem, experimenting with extended techniques to depict both the sun and the words through music. Performed by Cuckson, Meyer, and van der Swaagh, the striking piece was a highlight of the evening. From a beginning that featured bright harmonics in the violin and viola while the cello played a vibrant melody, each movement in turn provided enveloping emotional expression.
The second movement – “I shine on those who are forsaken…tear off the mask, your face is glorious” – opened with a brittle sound. A crunching drone accompanied a fragmented violin melody that eventually became a sweet, high-pitched solo. Viola and cello tumultuously re-entered as the violin launched into a virtuosic passage, played brilliantly by Cuckson. The music continued to build, reinforced by the trio’s spellbinding drama, until it erupted into an impassioned fervor as Cuckson began a moving melody filled with a deeply expressive, unbridled enthusiasm. As it culminated, someone in the audience whispered “beautiful,” and we all clapped in assent.
Vanessa Ague is a violinist, avid concertgoer, and music blogger at theroadtosound.com, and the development and research associate at National Sawdust. She was a 2019 Bang on a Can Media Fellow, and holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Yale University.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.
In 'Ipsa Dixit,' composer and vocalist Kate Soper presents a variable treatise on art and its available meanings, one as clever and sly as it is erudite and provocative.
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Let's begin bold: There surely will be no student undertaking of an operatic or music-theater work more significant than the new production of Robert Ashley's 1999 opera Dust that the College of Performing Arts at the New School unveiled on February 2 in the school's Ernst C. Stiefel Concert Hall.
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Having completed its fifth year, the Prototype festival is a success. But in applauding a festival for its vision, we can also ponder uncomfortable questions, some of which might be unanswerable. What do we expect from a 21st-century opera? Does it have a cultural obligation to the representation of gender? What is its role in advocacy? Is it possible to be progressive and retrospective at the same time?
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How vital is it to know the literary underpinnings of what's essentially an abstract musical work? Does something fundamental get lost in translation, so to speak, when you hear such a work without knowing the literature that inspired it?