Brooklyn’s trendy new-music venue National Sawdust hosted a concert by its first composer in residence, Gity Razaz, whose work I first heard in 2014 on an album by cellist Jeffrey Zeigler. “Shadow Lines” is scored for cello, prerecorded cello, and electronics, including delay effects, a format Razaz is clearly comfortable with: The first piece on Friday night’s program, “Legend of Sigh,” was a longer exploration of the same configuration.
This work added visual projections created by Carmen Kordas. These ranged from abstract psychedelic-style swirls to footage of women walking slowly or gazing pensively at nothing. Though artfully shot and edited, they contributed only modestly to my enjoyment and appreciation of the music, which is tonally and lyrically inventive, pleasingly melodic, emotional but firmly in control of its passions.
Cellist Inbal Segev, whose Bach videos we premiered last year here at Blogcritics, is as adept at and comfortable with technically demanding new music as with Bach. She lived and breathed the stormy and eerie passages, aggressive pizzicatos, and shivery tremolos called for in Razaz’s score. Her refreshingly unpretentious stage manner contributed to the impression she gave that it was all easy, which it surely is not.
The piece’s single movement whirled through a series of strong statements and moods that felt fully lived and earned. They locked in well, if abstractly, to the video images, which suggested the Azerbaijani folktale that inspired the composer, about a mysterious being who appears out of nowhere to rescue anyone who sighs. But I enjoyed the music immensely without reference to the legend or the projections. And that reminded me how visual the culture of music has become. Do artists and promoters of new concert music feel an urgency to supplement the sonic with the visual just as the pop world does?
A theme of fraught duality runs through the poems: “two mismatched halfnesses lying side by side,” “each of us/is a torn half/whose lost other we keep seeking,” “strangers clasped into one,” “She who lies halved/beside me,” and finally, in “Valley of Not-Knowing”:
We who live out our plain lives, who put
our hand into the hand of whatever we love
as it vanishes, as we vanish…
where the flesh
swaddles its skeleton a last time
before the bones go their way without us…”
It’s fitting, then, that the parts are sung by the vocal “opposites,” soprano and baritone. Through the fine voices of Debbie Lifton and Jesse Blumberg the “story” became operatic, Lifton’s warm voice clear and assured, Blumberg’s tone alternately pealing and silky.
Similar programmatic gestures continue to turn up. Sparkles of sound flew from pianist Michael Smith’s fingers as Blumberg described the speaker’s wife’s “hair glowing in the firelight.” A dissonant scowl ends the description of a painful separation at the close of the poem “Aristophanes.” Chords reminiscent of Rachmaninoff open the poem “The Misfit,” sharpening into accents to express the pain of being an outsider as the title word is sung.
At every moment one feels the music’s full-on intent, even through its many unexpected developments – the march tempo of “Aristophanes,” the folky waltz of the “A Torn Half” duets, angelic clouds of sound mingled with dissonant trickles in “The Born Blind.”
“The Call Across the Valley of Not-Knowing” is an exciting piece that asks for sustained attention and offers many rewards – with no visual backdrop needed.