Till by Turning Plays Katherine Young’s Shattering, Messiaen-Inspired Four Chambered Heart
As a coda to their performance of Katherine Young‘s Four Chambered Heart this evening at the Music First series in downtown Brooklyn, quartet Till by Turning employed a trope that was once employed more often than it is now. It wouldn’t be fair to spoil the surprise, but it was effective to the extreme: this is one dark, riveting, transcendent piece of music. The composer played bassoon in this eight-part suite inspired by Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time alongside violist Amy Cimini, violinist Erica Dicker and pianist Emily Manzo.
Messiaen wrote his famous Quartet – for piano, cello, violin and clarinet – in a Nazi prison camp. Although much of it is haunting minutiae and ominously anguished, slow, practically interminable passages, it’s also a quietly defiant, resolute middle finger raised at the Nazis. Although it ends as eerily as any piece of music ever written, it’s far from pessimistic, with an unforgettably furtive escape sequence. While the architecture of Young’s suite echoes the Messiaen Quartet to a degree, it doesn’t pilfer Messiaen motives or themes. Instead, it turned out to be a dynamically bristling, mysterious series of shifts between elegantly rhythmic, occasionally dancing mimimalism, otherworldly, spectral sheets of sound and some of the Reichian circularity that continues to be all the rage in indie classical circles. Young’s background in the noisier, more atmospheric side of jazz – her album on Brooklyn label Prom Night got the thumbs-up here last year – and her work as a member of Anthony Braxton‘s ensemble were evident in both her playing and composition.
A handful of distantly menacing flourishes from Manzo grounded the graceful pizzicato of the first movement, followed by a viola-piano duo that built to creepy, tritone-laced, looped phrases. Other composers might well have simply used a loop pedal or a phrase on a laptop, but Young’s decision to play all of this live paid off massively in terms of maintaining suspense. As they did with several of the other movements, the ensembled stripped it down to its bare bones over Manzo’s graceful, precisely emphatic phrasing.
Young began the third movement low and austere and then sound coalesced with the entire ensemble – was this resilience in the face of fascism, maybe? Brooding piano chords wound it down as Young blew dark winds through a delay pedal that sent stygian waves echoing through the church. From there the strings matter-of-factly disassembled the theme and then hit an insistent, nonchalantly murderous, Julia Wolfe-esque, minimaliist rhythm.
If that wasn’t the evening’s peak moment, it was a little later when Manzo hit a single glimmering, resonant chord and then handed off to Dicker, who responded with a series of perfectly modulated, ghostly flickers. Or when the host First Presbyterian Church’s organist, Wil Smith, slowly built an oscillating drone that took on all sorts of overtones against Young’s pitchblende washes in the seventh movement. The work ended with a solo segment from Young, which quickly grew troubled and stormy as she worked her pedalboard, and then wound down to its most basic elements, matter-of-fact yet enigmatic, with an over-the-shoulder nod to Messiaen. The crowd was stunned. The only thing missing from this performance was what could have been more amplification on Manzo’s vocals during one of the early movements – her calm mezzo-soprano added a welcome warmth to the blend of textures, but it would have been even more interesting to hear the lyrics.
When Messiaen’s work first premiered in France after the composer had been sprung from captivity, was anyone in the audience stricken with the thought that the piece might not be performed again? The instrumentation is unorthodox for a quartet, as Young’s is, and Young’s piece in many ways is just as hauntingly memorable as Messiaen’s. What a rare treat it would be to hear both on the same bill.
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