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Review: Scott Worthington: Space Administration

WasteLAnd’s third concert in their first summer series continued the theme of meditations on altered time, with a concert devoted entirely to Scott Worthington’s Space Administration. The piece is Worthington’s doctoral dissertation piece, an extended setting of Ken Hunt’s poem, Apollo Spacecraft. The venue was the Velaslavasay Panorama, a community cinema built in 1911 that’s gone through a number of incarnations before its current cozily dilapidated state. The piece shares a number of features with The Cartography of Time, but is most definitely a different beast.

Firstly, the piece includes a video which projects the text of the poem, and provides structure for the hour-long concert experience. The poem itself is an important player in the success of the piece, and deserves careful consideration. The text is taken from NASA’s voice transcription of the first day of the Apollo 11 moon mission, complete with timestamps. Hunt has erased words throughout, however, leaving a skeleton of fragmented phrases, combined and reconsidered through the poet’s lens to form a contemporary ode to Apollo and a meditation on space travel. The poem is quite strong, and even in the fewest phrases, the poet manages to convey convincing vulnerability, will, and longing. It’s to Worthington’s credit that he chose a strong poem to set. Often, poems that are worthy on their own merits can actually be difficult to set, as a powerful text has its own priorities. In this case, however, the absences in the text, as well as Worthington’s thoughtful pace in displaying them, provide enough room for the music’s own dialogue to flower. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

The piece itself begins with a launch countdown in the video, which is effective in preparing the listener for the relentless march of timestamps that mark the piece. In the previous week’s The Cartography of Time, time stood still. Here, time is inexorably but weightlessly moving forward. Taken individually, the component parts are actually rather simple – samples have been recorded and processed from a Moog in use around the time of the Apollo mission, the green text fades quietly in and out of view, and the contrabass comments on the proceedings with a bank of recurring subjects and themes that bring to mind the frankness and inevitability of a rondo or ritornello. These rudimentary elements combine, however, to create something that does not just hold a listener’s interest, it feels substantial.

What really holds the piece together are the various conceptual tensions throughout. Many of the materials are traditional – recurring themes and motifs that arise with the introduction of key words or ideas, an ode to an ancient god, but these elements are unmoored, floating in a vast space. The poem purports to be about space travel, but there is so much in the imagery that is earthbound, quotidian. There are conflicts in the text between the known that is clung to, and the unknown, which is wholly undifferentiated. There is even a tension between Apollo’s realm – that of ordered music and light, and the occasionally malicious Moog context in which the piece takes place.

When Apollo actually does makes an appearance in the text, he is all of a sudden present. Worthington does an excellent job here at conjuring the sense of an ode in these moments, with variations and intensifications of musical material. We are all trying to communicate with the gods.

The form of the piece is actually somewhat difficult to follow. The form does change, and there are lighter and heavier moments, but transitions feel so inevitable that it’s hard to even keep track of the many locations we’re visiting. This can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on the intent of the composer. In this case, being without a goal is quite effective.

Most importantly, the overall effect is not really galactic so much as subjective. We are weightless, but are we really in outer space? The text is so powerful and the setting so passive that the listener’s reflections collapse in on themselves. This is hardly an outward looking conquest of the final frontier. We are definitely looking inward, and upward, with an ancient desire for the heavens.

EDITOR’S NOTE: an interview with Scott Worthington, whose album Prism will be out next week on Populist Records, is on the way too.

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