Part 1-Contemplating the Cosmos
The first of the two Piano Spheres performances that I attended at REDCAT was Ces Espaces Infinis, a collection of short solo piano pieces curated and performed by Nic Gerpe, a genuinely charming LA-based concerto soloist, chamber musician and proponent of new music. One critic has referred to Gerpe as “appropriately spacey and far-out” and I concur, insofar as his apparent taste in music goes.
I was in the younger third of the audience at REDCAT, a small theater where, previously, I had only been for film screenings. The audience was sparse. I sat in the middle near the front. A spotlight treated with a laid scrim threw dramatic, lattice-textured light onto the grand Yamaha on the stage, its lid open and its guts reflected precisely in a mirror-like, high-lacquer finish. Black and gold and white. Sinews and muscle. An eye into the belly of the beast.
Two young, male music students sat behind me. Another joined, apparently familiar with one of the others, and the three of them made awkward, impassioned conversation about their instruments, their music, and the music we were about to hear. The third boy and the one less familiar to him forged a palpable connection during the brief moments when it was safe to talk, and I imagined the planting of a seed of triangulation among this trio; the two who sat down first had a rapport that smacked of romance.
“Also, I really want a harpsichord.”
“Dude, just get a harpsichord.”
“I think I will.”
My technical knowledge of music is limited, to say the least. I am a writer/filmmaker and an artist of some uncertain stripe, but not a musician. I can sing and I can whistle rather well, but I have no bonafide understanding of how music comes together outside of what I intuit through the logic or illogic of my emotional antennae. As I experience it, a state of not knowing holds great promise, when one has the stomach to face it. If I am technically uneducated in a particular field, as I am in music, I am free to impose upon its inner machinations whatever romantic imaginings I choose, feeling it stretch out like a vast acreage of possibility, until I make the effort to dispel my own myths through a beginning phase of mastery. When I listen to music, particularly classical and jazz, I move between various synesthetic impressions, associating certain notes, instruments and pieces with specific colors, densities, textures, shapes, smells and body parts. A violin is long strands of muscle fibers with no end, reaching out in space and flexing, each fiber changing color as the notes evolve. A saxophone is grey around the edges and has a sound like a throat opening and closing in a small room with close, milky air. A flute can be brittle and yellow. Some associations are harder to describe. The sound of a tuba, for instance, has a sound-smell like the metallic equivalent of shiny ammonia. “Imagination without learning is like having wings but no feet,” a fortune cookie told me once. My relationship to music is made entirely of flight.
The first lighting cue of the evening was a single blue flood that washed the stage and the Yamaha in an icy hue. Nic Gerpe emerged. A sizeable moth zig-zagged the air above the piano, into and out of the blue light, erratic. This moth accompanied Gerpe throughout his performances, coming and going according to whim. Gerpe opened with I Leap Through the Sky with Stars, by Alexina Louie: highly textured in the low range, resonate, with a domino of sound that created at first a dense cumulus formation above the piano, then deeper cloud strata, such as are found stretching out in a sky pregnant with rain. The piece was contemplative, grey, roaming and short.
I should mention that I did not pick up a program and so was flying blind throughout the night. I did this on purpose. I wanted the music to wash over me, sans intellect. I learned later that Gerpe’s motivation for choosing I Leap Through the Sky with Stars was quite personal and related to the deaths of pianist Glenn Gould and composer Claude Vivier. Gerpe referenced a Zen death poem by Eihei Dogen:
Four and fifty years
I’ve hung the sky with stars.
Now I leap through –
In Gerpe’s words, “…a Zen death poem is rarely morbid and is usually meant as a summation of the author’s life and an inspiration to others.” A nod to Gould and Vivier.
The second lighting cue: a green flood with hexagonal amber spots. Gerpe must have chosen the palette of lights with some intention, as it was clear from the start that the bouts of shape and color were meant to speak along with his piano. The second piece, a selection from Métopes, by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, was inspired by female characters from the Odyssey—the Sirens, Calypso and Nausicaa—and was infused with melancholy indecision, not neurotic, but eager and with a tone of risky curiosity. Watery trills describing an uneven whirlpool. The pauses, the interstitial moments when the last note hung in the air and shrank into graphite silence, recalled what little I know of the Japanese concept of Ma, which is to say the fullness of a void or an interval. Ma figures heavily in Japanese architecture, pointing to the poetics of emptiness and space. It can even be applied to a theoretical space created between people. Particularly when listening to live classical music, I experience the requisite silence between movements or pieces with a peculiar gravity and find myself drawn to the absence of sound more than the presence of it. When Métopes was finished, in the silence I had a vision of a man walking alone at night after a heavy and complicated meal, his back turned—caught in a private, sartorial moment.
The light shifted to two atmospheric golden floods with a rectangular, white spotlight—well-suited to Land of Waking Dreams, by Juhi Bansal, the third piece. “Beaded curtain of sound,” is the note I jotted about Bansal’s music. “This 3rd piece is most compelling.” Gerpe laid a short length of chain (or something) over the tenor strings inside the piano to create a tinny metallic sound similar to a harpsichord. “Playing strings in the piano body like conjuring music from a tendon.”
At intermission, I listened to the trio of boys behind me discuss the program.
“I see a lot of content, but not a lot of content.”
I had no program and therefore no opinion. I focused on the way the restive intermission lighting created a subterranean effect onstage, as if light from the street above were filtering through a subway grate. I contemplated the nether-looking Yamaha as one among the trio behind me—a bassoon player—described the feeling of being in control and then suddenly out of control of his music when he plays:
“How much of this is under my fingers and how much is… uuuh, uh oh!”
The boy emulated the sounds of his instrument playfully (slurring 8ths in the ‘voice’ of a bassoon) like someone imitating a beloved pet.
“Can we talk about how good the lighting is?”
“That rectangular spot!”
Nic Gerpe emerged again and explained his musical choices (evidently filling in where the program was lacking) with his hands clasped one over the other, admirably composed and eloquent. He spoke about death and loss; about Odysseus’ journey into and out of temptation; about the endless Utah night sky. He spoke about the composer George Crumb’s inspiration for the fourth and final piece, Makrokosmos. Allusions to Bartok and Debussy. Universal themes. Links to astrology (each section associated with a different astrological sign). A poem by Rilke called Autumn:
The leaves are falling, falling as from way off,
as though far gardens withered in the skies;
they are falling with denying gestures.
And in the nights the heavy earth is falling
from all the stars down into loneliness.
We all are falling. This hand falls.
And look at others: it is in them all.
And yet there is one who holds this falling
endlessly gently in his hands.
And an explanation of the title, Ces Espaces Infinis, taken from French mathematician Blaise Pascal’s impression of the 17th century firmament: “Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie,” which translates to, “The eternal silences of these infinite spaces frightens me.”
Makrokosmos began with a purple flood, and two white spots, one square and one hexagonal. The moth darted around with fresh enthusiasm. Gerpe engaged the Yamaha intimately, leaning into it, singing into it, whistling into it, obstructing and sculpting its sound with his hands and little tools (a pick, I think, and that short length of chain). I so envied his full body contact with his instrument. The sensuousness of a musician interacting with their instrument is so strong in me when I witness it that I cannot separate it from a vision of two bodies exploring one another through a made-up sensorial language. When I was a teenager and first suffering from the insomnia that has come to plague me as an adult, I would walk around the living room of my youth in the wee hours with my Walkman on—blasting Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Dvorak—and pretend to be a conductor. At 2AM, the ecstasy of conjuring the body of an intricate piece of (apparently mostly Russian) music, as if plucking a vividly corporeal creature from a fog, was enough to assuage my sleep daemon to such an extent that it would, after a couple hours, allow me to rest. The handful of conducting gestures that I learned in my 3rd grade music class informed those drowsy improvisations, but they were, mostly, a theater of my own invention. This came to mind as I watched Gerpe elicit a sound from the piano like thin metal vessels, empty and vibrating in a cluster. He seemed to pull the sound out of the instrument. I made a note to look up the anatomy of a piano.
The lights shifted to indigo and white with an oblique grid pattern. Crumb’s Makrokosmos was in this section clipped and playful, jaunty and fragmented, like fine glass breaking and re-forming. Delicate, dark and sad.
Red floods, then. Gerpe sang and moaned as he ran his hand over the piano strings, plucking them like a harp—hissing and moaning, leaning into the instrument, raking its insides. The red light reflected in the lacquer made the interior of the Yamaha look like a bed of nails. The moth drank up the light.
Indigo floods. Gerpe banged on the armature of the piano, its spine and crossbars, whistling into it like a bird.
Purple flood with hexagonal and rectangular spots. Water falling on over-turned crystal tumblers. The moth zig-zagged. Gerpe hiss-whispered: “Tempus… Animus… Veritas… Mors…” Time. Hostility. Truth. Death. In a declamatory voice, then, “Tempus! Animus! Veritas! Mors!” An elbow strike to the treble strings.
Red, round flood with angular white spot. From my notes: “This is an incantation. We’re being led down a concrete ramp into a cold pyre.”
Round purple, then blue light. “Wistful, reflective—some sweetness and normalcy, but it abstracts like a dream. The moth is gone now.” Each section of Makrokosmos transcended the one that preceded it, like ever-deepening layers of tissue, or the ring of an inner turmoil with nadir and zenith seated in different centuries.
Gerpe held his lateral position as the last notes faded, one hand deep inside the piano, the other on the keys. The moth returned at applause with an enthusiastic jag. The trio of music students was deeply impressed with Gerpe’s performance of Makrokosmos, as was I.
“That one low note, it lasted so long!”
“It’s that moment when the pianist is partially crucified, their hands way out, like … Aaaah!”