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Deep Dreams

December 9, 2008

Not the least fascinating aspect of Other Minds' series of Saturday performances at San Francisco's Church of Swedenborg, at least for me, was the discovery that there is a Church of Swedenborg. The church, in the city's Cow Hollow district, is named for the 18th-century philosopher and theologian whose spiritual vision was equal parts Christianity, metaphysics, and mysticism.
True to this spirit, Other Minds presented these performances as "a new music séance summoning the specters of musical forbears [and] channeling the spirits of their successors." The second of the day's three programs, titled "Deep River Dreams," was given over to works for piano and violin, with "forbears" Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Olivier Messiaen, Samuel Barber, and Morton Feldman appearing alongside contemporary "successors" Ingram Marshall, Gabriela Lena Frank, and Mamoru Fujieda.

The afternoon began on a not particularly spiritual note. The opener, Barber's Excursions (1944), combines the composer's "neoromantic" musical language (as it is sometimes called) with hints of jazz. Pianist Eva-Maria Zimmermann did much to bring out the youthfulness of the work, Barber's first official composition for solo piano. In the second movement, "In Slow Blues Tempo," Zimmermann played with a sense of novelty that I imagine inspired the musical "excursions" to which Barber's title refers.

The next piece, Messiaen's Eight Preludes (1929), calls for a more serious tone. Especially in the movements chosen for performance, "The Impalpable Sounds of Dream" and "Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell," the work foreshadows the mysticism that would characterize Messiaen's entire career. Zimmermann erred perhaps too strongly on the side of humility, for by emphasizing the music's inscrutable mystery she sacrificed the emotional intensity that was equally a part of Messiaen's spirituality. In Zimmermann's reading, the recurring tritone motive that haunts the latter movement was merely enigmatic, inspiring neither fear nor awe.

Of the program's works, Feldman's two Piano Pieces (1955-56) were most suited to a musical "séance." Like other compositions by him, the Piano Pieces call for an almost oppressive blanket of silence, with a sparse constellation of notes only occasionally breaking the surface. The task of performing such a piece can sometimes require something like religious patience and concentration, and pianist Sarah Cahill displayed both. Many of the Piano Pieces' effects, like the subtle resonances in the piano's strings created by silently depressing the keys, were unrealizable in the church's close quarters, but this only enhanced the sense of mystic ritual: Both Cahill and the audience were striving for an impossible ideal.
Delving Into the Black Experience
Two works on the program turned to a different source of musical spirituality: African-American culture. Coleridge-Taylor's Deep River, from his 24 Negro Melodies, was presented here in an arrangement for violin and piano. Violinist Kate Stenberg did not play with the same level of technical refinement as Zimmermann or Cahill (her vibrato seemed inconsistently and in some cases arbitrarily applied), though this humanized the piece rather than detracted from it.

Still, it was a more convincing nod to the African-American experience than Ingram Marshall's Movement (Deep in My Heart), here given its world premiere. The piece purports to be based on Debussy's Mouvement as well as on the civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome. The music, however, was too preoccupied with technical matters (the opening section of the piece restricts itself to the first five notes of the major scale) to allow the protest song to leave much of an impression.

The remaining pieces left spirituality far behind, or at least demonstrated that "channeling" composers' spirits meant simply performing their music. Gabriela Lena Frank's Sueños de Chambi: Snapshots for an Andean Album (2002), inspired by photographs of Peruvian culture, paired Stenberg and Zimmermann in a Bartókian, folk-inflected work for violin and piano. The work was more varied than that description might suggest, though, relying as much on lyricism as on energetic rhythms and folk scales. Mamoru Fujieda's The Olive Branch Speaks (also in its premiere performance) takes its inspiration from even more dubiously spiritual sources: "melodic patterns [based on] the data of slight changes of electric potential found in living plants," according to the composer. In practice, this involves more-or-less tonal harmonies in the kind of gentle oscillation that one would imagine governing the inner workings of plants.

In spite of its fanciful ambitions, Other Minds' "Séance" was in all respects a concert, notwithstanding the gothic candelabra (nearly knocked over when the performers took a bow) and an ambient, pine-scented aroma. Yet the performance's spiritual overtones provided a sense of shared community. "Deep River Dreams" could have devolved into self-congratulatory New Age cliches, but it never did. The sincerity was palpable at all times, and I daresay Emanuel Swedenborg himself would have approved.

Noel Verzosa is a visiting assistant professor at California State University in Sacramento.