Jay Reise’s Shadow of the Red Sea Swallow depicts the last flight of a biological curiosity. The only evidence the Red Sea Swallow ever existed is a single dead bird — we apparently learned of its existence just as it became extinct.
I have always harbored some cynicism about “program music,” music that is supposed to describe something or portray an event. There are many examples that sound, to me, like standard symphonies or concertos with a program tacked on. The composer writes a symphony with the standard four movements, calls it Voyage on the River, and labels the fast movement Dash Through the Rapids and the slow movement Lazy Day in a Calm Stretch. They’re still just a good, old-fashioned allegro and adagio, and they would have sounded just as good so labeled. Unkind souls may even suggest the composer thought up the labels after he or she had written the music.
Reise’s 2011 piece is one of the exceptions. Mimi Stillman and Elizabeth White Clark played a new version for flute and harp at Dolce Suono’s second free concert in the Ross Gallery on the Penn campus, and it left me feeling Reise had created a true musical depiction. The line Stillman created with her flute was a perfect analog of the erratic, jagged flight of a bird. I don’t think you could portray that flight in any other medium. Words couldn’t do it. You need a medium that can trace a moving line and let your imagination fill in the picture.
In music, of course, Vaughan Williams did it with his violin solo, The Lark Ascending, which describes a smoother, less erratic flight. But the other arts? The only candidates that come to mind are Brâncuşi’s "Bird in Space" sculptures. Brâncuşi worked in a static medium, frozen in time, but your eye follows a flowing line.