Music Monday: Gardner: Perseids

[Good news on the recital/Kickstarter front! Not only are we quickly closing in on 75% of our funding goal, we’ve managed to work out the Wi-Fi situation at the concert venue, so we’re going to be able to stream the recital live! (You can find the livestreaming link over at the Facebook event page.) So if you’re one of my farther–flung fans, fear not! You’ll be able to listen in all the same. If you like the way I write about music and have an extra $5 lying around, now is a great time to chip in — every little bit really does help and truly is appreciated!]

As much as I like many aspects of city living — the density, the hustle and bustle, the major cultural institutions, just to name a few — there are other aspects of it I’m less fond of. Like many kids, I was fascinated by space growing up, and loved to go stargazing whenever I could. I don’t really remember if I had many opportunities in Columbia, but Amherst is rural enough that finding a sky free from the worst of the light pollution isn’t terribly difficult, and the UMass stone circle (not quite as imposing as Stonehenge, but constructed along similar principles) was basically walking distance from my house, so I have many memories of summer evenings spent staring heavenwards.

Rather unsurprisingly, Los Angeles is . . . not like that. I’ve definitely seen stars here, but only the brightest of them, and even then not reliably. The fainter tracings of nebulae and the dusty sweep of the Milky Way are all blotted utterly from view. I’ll probably be living in cities for the rest of my life. I may well have seen the majority of all the stars I will ever see in my life. So pieces about stars and stargazing have a special resonance for me, tinged with nostalgia both for the past and for an imagined future.

Delightfully, that kind of temporal interplay is at the heart of Alexandra Gardner’s Perseids too, tho she comes at it from a totally different angle. Gardner’s first forays into the world of composition were with electronic music; in this interview she describes being “immediately fascinated by the possibilities of making [her] own sounds, and constructing the music of [her] imagination”. Even as she began writing for acoustic instruments, she often kept electronic components in the mix, with the electronic elements often drawing from source recordings of the acoustic instrument in question. In addition to her compositional activities (she holds degrees from The Peabody Institute and Vassar, and lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland), she’s worked extensively in the fields of journalism and public radio, including a long and well regarded stint as the Associate Editor for New Music Box, an excellent publication I recommend to everyone interested in contemporary music.

Next month and the one after (i.e. July and August), the Earth will plough thru a cloud of debris left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle, producing the annual Perseid meteor shower, one of the most reliable annual meteor showers in the world. For the past several years, Gardner and several of her friends have made an annual trek to a rural location during the shower’s peak to watch shooting stars streak across the sky, and the piece Perseids grew out of these experiences. Unlike the myriad stars whose light is sometimes millions of years old by the time it reaches Earth, meteors shine out in the present moment, meaning that the night sky becomes a kind of time machine, with very recent light juxtaposed against light that is many times older than civilization.

Etherial tracings of metallic percussion and snatches of a chorale in the brass get the piece going (streaming on her website), followed shortly by a convoluted melody in the woodwinds over a largely static ground. The mood is pensive, meditative, reflective. There are hints of an ominous darkness, but they are quickly tucked away, woven back into the texture before they can lead to any kind of rupture. The saxophones introduce a more lively chorale fragment, and, in a piecemeal way, the ensemble slowly begins to accelerate — the effect is not unlike imagining galaxies in cosmological time lapse, each moving at its own speed and in its own direction, but drawn along inexorably by the same forces as all the rest. But accelerate the ensemble does, and a marimba soon launches a new groove with the help of some quiet sandpaper blocks.

Rather than dive in full–heartedly right away, the woodwinds test these new waters tentatively at first, with a series of light, bouncing chords. Their concerns are abated soon enough, and they join in this new music, quickly leading to a long, slow brass melody under their whirling dance. The piece then takes a second, somewhat expanded pass thru this material, this time leading not to a third return of the marimba, but to an expansive statement of the brass chorale, echoed briefly by the woodwinds before a percussion toccata pushes things forward again. This time, the dance predominates over the slower melody in the low brass, and the piece ends in relaxed, good–natured exuberance.