Seattle Modern Orchestra Challenges Expectations, Musical Limitations in Season Finale

The Seattle Modern Orchestra, directed by the charming and vivacious duo Julia Tai and Jérémy Jolley, rounded out its 2015-2016 season on June 11th at the Good Shepherd Center with pensive, erudite performances of three notable contemporary concept pieces: Gérard Grisey’s Périodes (1974), Claude Vivier’s Samarkand (1981), and the West Coast première of Anthony Cheung’s Discrete Infinity (2011).

Seattle Modern Orchestra (Photo: Huck Hodge)

Several elements came together to make this performance particularly unique and engaging. First, the remarkable, apparent ease with which the musicians performed both as a unit and as individuals at will. Second, the clear relationship between the three pieces, as each exhibited a shuttering of tradition in favor of using the parts for other purposes. And, finally, the surprising parallels between the pieces and the turning points in the history of the Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford in which they were performed.

Grisey notes that his Périodes for seven instruments represents the “soft” periodicity of the respiratory cycle (organic and varied, as opposed to mechanical and precise): inhalation, exhalation, and rest. A noted proponent and composer of liminal music, which emphasizes the perpetually transitory nature of music itself, Grisey wrote Périodes to explore five of these breathing cycles. Each sequence constructs increasingly complex series of harmonics that share a single fundamental note.

In the first derivation, violist Heather Bentley droned on a dark, controlled low D while the other instruments built up a harmonic profile around it, cut through by a sort of tolling-bell rhythm by trombonist Rebecca Good. The sequence resolved into a calm yet apprehensive whole tone melody before coming to a rest and beginning a new sequence, this time focused on rhythmic structures.

The final cycle included a comedic, revelatory sense of perpetuity, reminiscent of the introduction to Mel Brooks’ 1987 film Spaceballs – just when it’s almost certainly over, it continues. Then it continues to continue, similarly to the intended function of the respiratory cycle.

To open Vivier’s Samarkand, clarinetist Angelique Poteat and oboist Ursula Sahagian joined forces with flautist Jessica Polin, bassoonist Steven Morgen, and Josiah Boothby’s French horn to create a dissonant groundswell of sound while Bathsheba Marcus’ heavily-accented piano forged its own path, stoking an unmistakable sense of fretfulness. The effect was similar to that of listening to a rant of a bona fide mad scientist in a basement lab, whose thread could be logically followed to a point before veering off in a completely unpredictable direction – simultaneously unnerving and enthralling. Gradually, the winds and brass echo the piano, adding a new dimension of depth and clarity, and Vivier again surprised with instructions to rap lightly on the piano’s open lid with a rubber ball.

As the piece came to its glacial close, the winds remained unflinchingly discordant, and the structure of their details lost within each other created an atmosphere of blended, inextricable tension. The SMO’s meticulous interpretation of Samarkand challenged the audience to break free of assumption again and again.

The intermission allowed audience members and performers to mingle over wine and cookies, which fostered a welcoming sense of conversation and community. I was fortunate enough to speak with composer Anthony Cheung about his piece, Discrete Infinity.

A well-spoken, thoughtful, engaging man, Cheung revealed that the piece had taken on a life of its own before he perceived its connection with Noam Chomsky’s idea of discrete infinity: that despite the finite nature of certain systems, such as language, infinite meanings are possible.

Cheung recognized that he could apply this idea to his music. He knew that he wanted his as-of-yet-untitled piece to build on harmonics, primarily those of strings, which derive their intricacy from a single tone or series.

He wrote ascending lines for the brass and wind sections, building upon tones with strong harmonic relationships, then introduced a cacophony of sound from all instruments to break them all down again. The sounds reduced into their discrete properties, leading to previously undiscovered combinations. Cheung accomplished his goal of representing the idea of infinite possibilities in music over time in Discrete Infinity, the limitations of resources and equipment notwithstanding.

BrendanHoweOakland native Brendan Howe grew up surrounded by music and has been performing since the age of six. He has been listening to a lot of Tom Waits, Sviatoslav Richter, and Kate Bush lately.