Howard Wershil | 8 NOV 2023
“A Safe Space.” It’s a phrase that we encounter from time to time. The Oxford Dictionary defines the term as “a place or environment in which a person or category of people can feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment or any other emotional or physical harm.”
So, that is how we define it socially and politically. But how do we define a safe space on a personal level? Is it the home we enjoy with the family we love? Is it the religious institution we attend with those who respect us? Is it a school where learning is exciting and pleasurable? The list can go on and on. We’re all looking for our “safe spaces,” as many of them as we can find.
While I wouldn’t equate the community of lovers and participants of contemporary art and music with genuinely discounted members of our society, a case could be made for our lack of numbers and unique tastes constituting a subculture also in search of spaces where we feel comfortable, unthreatened, and maybe even happy.
One of my own initial “safe spaces” in Atlanta was the now-long-gone Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Cliff Valley Way, where I both presented and enjoyed wonderful performances. I would certainly include the area of the High Museum containing excellent and provocative works from around the middle of the 20th century. I would have to include Eyedrum Music and Art Gallery, once residing on Martin Luther King Drive, as an exalted safe space for me, where I enjoyed many an interesting art and music event, and hallowed opportunities to participate as well.
In entering each of these “safe spaces,” I would always feel that “ahhhh” experience that needs no further description to those who have also shared the experience.
And now, I’m delighted to add the First Existentialist Congregation of Atlanta, particularly as occupied and nurtured by Alya Ensemble, as my newest “safe space” discovery. Their presentation of “eternal echoes: ethereal music of mystery, recognition, and expansion” (lower case letters intentional) provided me with an “ahhhh” experience I’ve not had for quite a long time.
According to their own description, this concert by Alya Ensemble “features music for flute, cello, and piano… brought together in this program to offer an experience of being transported into a gentle state of freedom, expansion, and timelessness.”
They nailed it.
The first piece on the program, The Piano At The Palace Beautiful (2019) by Marti Epstein, began quite innocuously, with soothing, lush consonant harmonies. At first, I thought it was going to be a kind of experiment with diatonicism, but as the piece unfolded, the lush harmonies began to overlap, sustain, curl within each other, spread, and embrace, giving rise to a language far more interested in timbre and sonority than in tonality and motif. The entire mood of the composition was relaxing and meditative, freeing one’s soul and opening one’s heart. I was infused with a sense of loving acceptance, a wonderful sensation to enjoy as a springboard to the remainder of this ambitious program.
Sometime during the piece, I could hear the soft sounds of a power drill drifting in from the outside, performing its on-again/off-again obligato, mixing with the luscious ambience of the piece being performed. While such an intrusion might be considered by most as undesirable, I found it merely a testament to the power of the sound universe I was enjoying to tolerate the inclusion of a few other soft, ambient players from time to time without breaking the allure of its well-crafted spell. As with so many aspects of our brief human existences, serendipity can play an unexpected role.
No detraction intended by me from the power of the piece I was hearing, and the focused, excellent performance provided by Amy O’Dell. If I had to attach only one word to the entire sonic experience, I would use “reverence.” Reverence for life. Reverence for lost memories, and those memories that return unexpectedly. I will look forward to exploring Marti Epstein’s music further, and the sound worlds she creates. We may find something quite special here.
Kaija Saariaho (credit: Priska Ketterer)
The next piece, Mirrors (1997) by Kaija Saariaho for flute and cello, provided a timely contrast to the opening piece, concentrating its efforts on brief improvisational-sounding passages that could be performed in random sequence. It was a relatively brief composition but provided both the opportunity for displays of confident bravado on the part of cellist Jean Gay and flutist Matthieu Clavé and the expression of a coherent, personal sonic/atonal language on the part of the composer. I found it quite invigorating. Saariaho has enjoyed much success as a composer worldwide, and her mastery of performance technique and musical expression shown in this relatively early composition certainly attests to her current achievements.
The third piece on the program was Vox Balaenae (“Voice of the Whale,” 1971) by George Crumb. Being a huge fan of his music, I was delighted to have the opportunity to hear this piece. Two of his earlier works, Eleven Echoes of Autumn (1966) and Ancient Voices of Children (1970), were musical worlds that opened my eyes to creative imagination and innovation and, with other positive musical experiences, placed me on the path to becoming a composer and a lover of contemporary music as a college student.
George Crumb (credit: Becky Starobin)
For this performance of Vox Balaenae, we have our four dedicated performers — flutist, pianist, cellist, and whistler (Paul Guy Stevens) — donning black eye masks, and choosing to lower the lights in the space to set the mood and establish austerity. The composer utilized a variety of performance techniques to create the sonic universe presented to us, including speaking into the flute and audibly tapping the keys; plucking, pounding, and scraping the inside piano strings; and creating beautiful cello harmonics by bowing while lightly sliding fingers down the strings at various tempi. Most of the composition was dark, moody, sonorous, sparse, with occasional bursts of dense activity and even less frequent inclusions of conventional tonality having almost love-ballad properties. It was an uncanny and moving experience from start to finish. You emerged feeling privileged to have been invited to such a sacred and transcendent occasion.
George Crumb, who passed away a little over a year and a half ago at the age of 92, is considered by many to be the premiere composer of late 20th/early 21st century classical contemporary music. His music incorporates unique theatrical and mystical elements, and suffice it to say, a sonic language unlike anything ever heard before in the history of music. Like Harry Partch and Edgard Varese before him, he was a true and rare original. I believe his work will surely endure.
Flutist Matthieu Clavé. (credit: Davida Cohen)
Flute Sonata, movements 1 and 4 (1904), by Mel Bonis provided an extraordinary showcase for the talents of both flutist Matthieu Clavé and pianist Amy O’Dell. This was a delightful, vivacious piece of music, thoroughly pleasurable. While the character of the two movements was surely quite different, both exhibited the commonality of an extraordinary performance interaction, creating almost an “optical” illusion of failing to determine where flute began and piano ended – and/or vice versa.
On a side note, may I offer: As I write this review, I fear I’m not providing the necessary and well-earned kudos for performers who are clearly highly trained, highly motivated, highly proficient, and lovingly dedicated to the art and craft of contemporary music, as indeed these fine performers are. But here is the epiphany! When enjoying performances from musicians so adept and flawless, the experience of their performance fades into the background, leaving only the essence of the music to absorb and enjoy. In this spirit, I only hope that any inadvertent silence on my part speaks volumes of praise.
Jean Gay and Paul Guy Stevens perform Gay’s “infinite possibilities.” (credit: Davida Cohen)
It’s always a challenge to select just the right opening and closing composition for a contemporary music program. As with the success of the opener, the closer does not disappoint. Jean Gay’s infinite possibilities (2023, lowercase letters intentional) used the simple and oft-used technique of looping and overlapping to create a unique and beautiful textural experience. As it happened, this was the only piece also featuring percussionist Paul Guy Stevens performing on brass and crystal sound bowls. The combination of the drone of the bowls with the gentle repetitions of the well-considered cello created just the perfect meditative experience to end the event.
I truly enjoyed this concert. And I truly appreciate that compositions were so shrewdly selected with the theme of the concert in mind. For more insight into this wonderful ensemble, and the pieces performed on this exceptional concert, I encourage you to visit their website, www.alyaensemble.com.
While Alya Ensemble seems to offer only one concert a year, these performers offer other useful possibilities for discovery. You can enjoy Amy O’Dell performing on toy piano with Smol Ensemble (two toy pianists, two percussionists), and you can also hear her performing commissions for solo toy piano on her album, Find Your Inner Child. Jean Gay’s music can be found on her most recent solo albums, Circle Myth and sonic body. And Matthieu Clavé is an active musician in Bent Frequency, Terminus Ensemble, and Chamber Cartel.
Seek out these performers and the music they present. They may create a safe space for you as well. ■
Howard Wershil is an Atlanta-based contemporary music composer interested in a wide variety of genres from classical to cinematic to new age to pop and rock and roll. You can find his music on Soundcloud and Bandcamp (howardwershil.bandcamp.com), and follow him on Facebook under Howard Wershil, Composer.