Mature is the word the Dresser chooses for the October 24, 2013, East Coast Premiere of String Quartet No. 6 by Philip Glass. Co-commissioned by the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, (and several other university arts centers and private patrons) on the occasion of the Kronos Quartet's 40th anniversary, the work in three movements is, as it opens, set in lower register of the musical scale. The first movement presents an urgent story that seems to suggest, without any overt beat, a clock ticking. The second movement, mixing high and low registers of sound, indicates a new dawn, an awakening. The final movement comes back to the authority and steadfastness of the opening movement. The work is largely peaceful but not groundbreaking for a string quartet like Kronos that has been on the cutting edge of new classical music.
The most exciting work of the program, Uri Boguinia's On the Wings of Pegasus (2013) followed the intermission. Commissioned for the Kronos 40th anniversary by the David Harrington Research and Development Fund, the composition opened dramatically one instrument at a time joining in--cello (Sunny Yang), viola (Hank Dutt), violin (John Sherba), violin (David Harrington )--with a sweet and suspenseful buildup to a nouveau Slavic folk music motif. The piece evolved with a slow spiral into syncopation with Harrington's violin flying musically away from the other instruments. The Dresser felt exhilarated. Harrington introduced the piece by saying the composer born in 1991, was the youngest one Kronos had ever worked with and that one of Boguinia's professors said what this young composer was writing was "crap." Did the Dresser hear that correctly? Yes, Harrington obviously disagrees.
Also interesting--for its text but not for its barebones music--was Pamela Z's And the Movement of the Tongue (2012). The work divided into thirteen parts needed some cutting, however the linguistics of the words was quite appealing and had their own musical quality. The libretto experimented with regional accents, an elocution exercise (the rain in Spain), repetition, computer generated voices, etc. The piece, which ended the show, was witty and engaging.
Preceding the Glass' premiere was Canadian composer John Oswald's Spectre (1990), Geeshie Wiley's Last Kind Words (c. 1930) as arranged by Jacob Garchik, "Alter Yechiel Karniol's Sim Sholom (c. 1913) as arranged by Judith Berkson, and Nicole Lizée's Hymnals (2013). Spectre sounds like a louder crescendoing voice of the train in Glass' Einstein on the Beach. Oswald overdubs other recordings of Kronos to increase the intensity of sound until there are 1001 string quartet reflections. A slow strobing light accented the piece. The Dresser found the piece annoying for its gimmick of cacophony and light show.
By contrast Last Kind Words which was heavy on string plucking and whimsy was a welcomed relief from Spectre. But then the Dresser likes the blues. Geeshie Wiley was a Black singer whose reputation centered on her exceptional guitar arrangements. She lived in the early 20th Century and was on the cusp between Black secular evolving into blues.
Sim Sholom showed off the talent of cellist Sunny Yang, the newest member of Kronos. Yang plays passionately and she ably captured the cantorial singer in her strings including vibrato. The piece was quiet, reflective, and movingly sad.
Commissioned for Kronos with support from the Canada Council of the Arts, Hymnals sounded like a romp in outer space with slides on the strings and electric autoharp. Program notes from the composer said the work re-imagines psychedelic folk who perform manic sing-alongs, chanting, and freaked-out humming. The Dresser, who came of age during the late 1960s, could only scratch her head and mutter that the composer who was born in 1973 must have gotten these sounds second or third hand. The light show that went with this piece amounted to some wandering colored bubbles that were at best an afterthought.
In Hannah Gamble's poem "Growing a Bear," a man, beyond mid-life when men usually go out and buy a sports car as their hairline recedes, their waists expand, and their sex lives diminish, recounts that he is growing a bear in his basement. The quest to recapture masculine energy is embodied in this surprising subterranean exercise. Philip Glass' String Quartet No. 6 with its subdued score might benefit from a libretto taken from Gamble's poem "Growing a Bear."
GROWING A BEAR
Growing a bear -- a midnight occupation,
the need for which you perhaps first realized
when you saw the wrong kind of shadow
under your chin -- a convex when you expected
concave, so now it's clear
you're getting older. Your wife was in the shower
and you wanted to step inside
and soap her up like you did in college when she said
"I'll shower with you, but I'm leaving
my underwear on," and you enjoyed her
in every way you could enjoy a person with soap.
You didn't join your wife in the shower.
She's gotten funny about letting you see her
shave her legs or wash herself anywhere.
You think she read it somewhere --
that letting your husband see you pluck anything,
trim anything, apply medicine to anything,
will make him feel like he's furniture.
It's exactly on cold nights like these that the basement
is not as forbidding as it should be, despite the fact
that you have to put gloves on
in what is part of your own home.
Downstairs, a large bathtub, kept, for some reason,
after remodeling. It is there that your bear will be grown,
by you, though you have no idea how. Probably wishing
is most of it; fertilizer, chunks of raw stew meat,
handfuls of blackberries, two metal rakes, and a thick rug
make up the rest. Then water.
You get an e-mail from a friend late at night
saying he can't sleep. You write back
"I hope you feel sleepy soon" and think how childish
the word "sleepy" is. And you're a man,
older than most of the people you see on television.
You haven't even considered how your wife will feel
when you have finished growing your bear. You could
write a letter to her tonight, explaining how your life
was just so lacking in bear:
"Janet, it's nothing you've done --
clearly you have no possible way of supplying me with a bear
or any of the activities I might be able to enjoy
after acquiring the bear."
It might just be best
to keep the two worlds separate.
Janet clearly prefers things to be comfortable
and unchallenging. Janet soaps herself up. Janet puts herself
to bed, and you just happen to be next to her.
You go on your weekly bike ride with Mark and tell him
that you've been growing a bear. An eighteen-wheeler
flies by and he doesn't seem to hear you --
plus he's focused on the hill.
You think about how not all friends know
what each other sounds like when struggling and
breathing heavy. Past the age of college athletics,
most friends don't even know what each others' bodies
look like, flushed, tired, showering, cold.
as published in Poetry Magazine
Copyright © 2013 Hannah Gamble
Photo: Jay Blakesberg