Review: WasteLAnd: The Cartography of Time

Gnwarwhallaby at Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church. Photo by Tina Tallon.

The inaugural summer series of WasteLAnd is an exciting addition to the innovative concert series – over the span of eight days, four concerts explore facets of WasteLAnd’s aesthetic. Summer casts a more languid hue on concert-going, and WasteLAnd’s thoughtful programming, and aptly named Waste(d)LAnd limited edition beer, seem to take advantage of this seasonal atmosphere.

On Saturday, July 25th, WasteLAnd teamed with the forces of Gnarwhallaby at the Neighborhood Church in Pasadena for the second of these summer performances. The Neighborhood Church has been home to a number of Gnarwhallaby concerts, and it was a refreshing surprise to find that the space had been transformed by the arrangement of the ensemble in the middle of the sanctuary, seats and speakers closely surrounding them, all lit by paper lamps and music stand lights. This subdued atmosphere had a noticeable effect on the experience of these pieces. Visual aspects are often distracting when trying to focus on sound worlds of great detail, and this staging facilitated an un-self-conscious concentration, which is lacking in many audience environments.

The first two pieces, DSCH by Edison Denisov and avance|impulsions mechaniques by Adriana Hölszky, are part of Gnarwhallaby’s standard repertoire, and were executed with characteristic familiarity and care. The pieces were both lovely in their jaggedly taut way, with surprisingly similar languages although separated by a number of decades (1969 to 1997). Both pieces use a vocabulary of ‘classic’ extended techniques, post-tonal, rhetorical gestures, and an abstracted sense of form, but explore different concerns. DSCH is form-driven, with clear demarcations of gesture and response, complex interaction and moments of reflection, while the Hölszky is more unified in its brutality and trajectory, building and exploring a singular kind of momentum with 90’s additive intensity. The experience of these pieces was also made different by the unique arrangement of the ensemble. Contrapuntal sections were clearer and more obviously social, rhythmic interactions more defined and intimate.

The focus of the night, however, was the premiere by composer David Brynjar Franzson, The Cartography of Time, commissioned specifically for Gnarwhallaby.

The commission has been a long time coming. Gnarwhallaby has been in consultation with Franzson since 2012, when the group first heard a piece by the composer at The Industry’s First Take concert. The quartet agreed that Franzson’s piece was their favorite of the evening, and began corresponding with him about writing for the group. In 2013, Franzson came to see the ensemble in New York, as well as in Iceland in 2014. The length of this association is evident in the extraordinarily subtle treatment of the ensemble.

The Cartography of Time begins imperceptibly, with electronic clicks and percussive effects in surrounding speakers gently immersing the audience in the three-dimensional world that is to unfold. Gradually, the ensemble enters with extended, strained tones built from an expertly orchestrated vocabulary of harmonics, multiphonics, and subtly colored intonation. A look at the score shows that the entire piece is organized with exact metrical shifts, and a tempo click heard in a headphone by the cellist who cues the ensemble, but this structural underpinning is completely hidden. Ensemble tones and percussive gestures combine seamlessly with the audio track, building and waning in dynamics from indiscernible to a mezzo-forte at the loudest.

The composite effect is mesmerizing and convincingly organic. Something is definitely living and breathing – if not a human being, then the landscape itself swells. The bass clarinet seems to lead in many areas, even if this is unintended, as its versatility allows for a range of expression that naturally contrasts with the other parts. From impossibly strained high tones, blending with the electronics, to low growls and multiphonics at the bottom of the range, the bass clarinet provides a frame and impetus for the rest of the ensemble. Muted trombone swells are insistent, but self-possessed. The piano is used economically, in a percussive manner. Franzson carefully chooses to forgo the enormous gestural capabilities of the piano. No cliché registral leaps are in evidence here: sharp attacks on single tones with subsequent ringing or damped harmonics fit beautifully into the texture. Cello tones are somehow simultaneously woody and glassy and blend imperceptibly with the electronics. Gnarwhallaby is at its best here; the execution was precise, integrated, and beautiful.

Gnwarwhallaby at Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church. Photo by Tina Tallon.

Rather than building from this texture or jostling the listener in another direction, however, Franzson remains in this temporality for the entirety of the thirty-or-so minute piece. Where other composers may have easily been tempted to exploit the materials here, quickening the pace, or exploring all electronic possibilities, Franzson’s approach is more receptive, and decisively so. The remarkable restraint here is by far the strongest feature of the piece; by focusing on a single experience of temporality, Franzson truly creates an altered sense of time, rather than simply the idea of one.

Many works of this scale and intent miss this crucial distinction. When a sense of immersive, suspended time is attempted, audiences are too often left adrift. A composer can easily disregard the natural ebb and flow of attention, demands on the listener are too great for the aesthetic reward, or the suspension of expectations in a piece breaks down, forcing attention elsewhere.

Here, Franzson has displayed the true craft of the composer – informed attenuation of the audience’s attention. The organicism and looseness of the landscape allows for real fluctuations of audience attention and perception, without dogmatic demands or meretricious ploys for listener interest. A glance around the room showed evidence of this skill: the energy in the room had dropped, people’s breathing had slowed, many had eyes closed and almost all wore contemplative expressions.

Rather than a first effort, Cartography is obviously the work of a composer experienced in creating this particular experience of time. Ironically, the title The Cartography of Time seems a bit misleading – cartography is the detailed cataloguing of uncharted territory, but in this piece, we have already arrived. We know exactly where we are, planted firmly in a single temporality in which gray, smoky landscapes seem to come in and out of focus, approach and recede around us. The world we inhabit is not the two-dimensional world evoked by maps, however allegorically intended, but a very real and vibrant three-dimensional world, crafted by an extraordinarily capable composer.

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