Network for New Music tackles Darwin (2nd review)

Pictures at an evolution

Oka: Frantic passage.
Oka: Frantic passage.

I didn't know what to expect when I set off for the latest Network for New Music event. Five settings, by student composers, of poems written in response to the "Dialogues with Darwin" exhibit at the American Philosophical Society Museum? A multimedia work on Charles Darwin's life and achievements?

As it turned out, the Network mounted one of the most satisfying concerts I've attended this season. The multimedia work, Maurice Wright's Darwiniana, deserves decades of repeat performances. The five poetry settings all met the basic test of a good setting: They enhanced each poem's impact and brought out qualities I might not have noticed if I'd just been reading it to myself.

The exhibit to which the poets responded is an informative, densely packed installation that's deliberately designed to elicit responses. The composers selected the poems that appealed to them, and the program added another layer to the conversation by featuring multiple settings of two of the poems.

A comic beast

Daniel Shapiro and David Carpenter both emphasized the mystery and mysticism of The Monogamous Man, by the poet Jose Cedillos, but they produced compositions with distinctively different personalities. Shapiro accompanied Randall Scarlata's baritone with a single cello, Carpenter opted for flute and cello. Shapiro opened with a fragmented accompaniment that set the mood and ended with a big vocal melody line. Carpenter created some great melodies and gave his setting a lighter overall feeling.

Daniel Nelson and Ian Munro contributed to an illustrious tradition when they seized on the comic possibilities in Cort Day's ode to an extinct giant sloth, Megatherme, Multiplexing in Primal Flora, Opens Its Eyes. The comic beast sports a musical history that includes Saint-Saens's Carnival of the Animals as well as the musical effects Haydn used to portray worms and other creatures in his Creation oratorio. Day's poem contains lines like

Wow, you are ridiculous, two elephants high,
Slow as a molar of nerves and lightning

and also, dumb.

Nelson colored the text with an accompaniment for flute, clarinet and cello. Munro confined his instrumental forces to a violin and cello. Nelson started with a fragmented accompaniment that evoked the immensity of time and moved on to musical touches that reflected the drollery of the subject.

Munro started with a jazzy march and turned serious when he reached the final lines, which remind us that this whimsical animal was, after all, eliminated by the remorseless process Darwin labeled natural selection.

Darwin's worried wife

Andrew Litts's setting of Beth Feldman Brandt's Transmutations produced the most moving interlude in the half of the program devoted to the poems. Brandt's text imagines Darwin's response to a letter in which his wife worried that he was losing his faith. The interactions of voice, flute, violin and cello create a portrait of a restless, busy mind. Brandt's words and Litts's music meld into a dramatic, poignant soliloquy.

Maurice Wright is a Temple composer who has devoted his career to work that mixes sounds and images. His Darwiniana combines instrumental music for a ten-musician chamber ensemble with images and texts from the Philosophical Society's exhibit, projected on a big screen behind the players.

three instrumental sections are prefaced by short interludes that combine computer-generated images with electronic music pre-recorded by the composer. Quotations from Darwin's works and papers appear on the screen during the instrumental movements.

Rain forest as cathedral

The images in the first electronic interlude were too abstract for my taste, but the other two prefaces included moments like a powerful sequence in which Darwin's diagram of the Tree of Life emerges from the sea and assumes the characteristics of a symbol out of myth and legend.

Wright's first instrumental section covers Darwin's voyage aboard the Beagle. The text dominated this section, and the music seemed more like an accompaniment, even though it included segments like a strong passage that underlines Darwin's view of the rain forest as a cathedral of Nature.

Wright's second instrumental section, on the other hand, is a lovely slow movement, with some beautiful solos for the cello and a domestic mood reinforced by the oboe and spiced by the xylophone. It covers the eight years Darwin devoted to his study of barnacles, the long careful development of his approach to evolution, and a secluded domestic life in which Darwin listened to his wife play the piano and took long walks over the countryside.

Words against sounds

The third section conveys the drama and conflict that followed the publication of The Origin of Species and ends with a sober and solemn accompaniment to one of Darwin's major statements.

In both of these sections, the words and the music work together like the contrapuntal voices of a Bach score. At one point, for example, I realized I was watching first violinist Hirono Oka attack a frantic passage on the violin, just as I would at a purely musical event, while I responded, simultaneously, to the words on the screen.

Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection is itself a major event in the history of our species— an epic, pivotal moment in our struggle to understand our world and ourselves. Maurice Wright has created a work worthy of his subject.♦

To read another review by Peter Burwasser, click here.

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