Last night the second of the three concerts in the New Frequencies Fest, presented by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, was performed in the YBCA Forum. The program presented two compositions separated by an intermission. The first was Theresa Wong’s The Unlearning, inspired by the etchings that Francisco Goya collected under the title The Disasters of War; and the second was “The Crossing,” an extended group improvisation created and led by Edward Schocker.
The Unlearning is a song cycle consisting of 21 songs. Inspired by Goya’s work, Wong began work on the piece in 2009 in reaction to the ongoing hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. Seventeen of the songs take their respective titles from Goya’s etchings. She scored the piece for two vocalists, each playing an accompanying instrument. It was written for Wong to play on cello with Carla Kihlstedt on violin. She recorded the full cycle on an album released in September of 2011 by Tzadik. In 2013 she returned to the project, commissioning filmmakers Daria Martin and Mao Mollona to provide visual projections that would accompany a concert performance of The Unlearning. This is the version that was performed last night with the omission of one of the songs from the recorded album, “Fantomima” and with the order of the songs slightly different from that on the album.
The visual element involved far more than simply projections of Goya’s images. Indeed, Goya was rather slow to appear as the performance unfolded. Instead Martin and Mollona evolved a synthesis of ancient Goddess imagery and abstraction with the Goya source. Indeed, Goya first makes an appearance as the texture for one of those abstract shapes. This may be one reason why the program book was supplemented with a large sheet of paper that reproduced the images of the prints whose titles were used in The Unlearning.
Musically, the vocal work involved a diversity of innovative approaches to vocalization and settings of haiku. From the listener’s point of view, however, the vocalizations tended to leave a deeper impression than the text settings. Some of them may have been inspired by Meredith Monk, but it is just as likely that Wong arrived at her own technical foundations through her own devices. The relationship between voice and instruments was a variable one, ranging between smoothly integrated combinations of sonorities and sharply disparate concurring events. Kihlstedt was clearly as comfortable with this technique as Wong was, so the transition from solo to duo was a smooth one. Indeed, those moments in which their two respective voices blended in harmony were some of the most powerful moments of the evening.
Nevertheless, it is unclear how much was gained by the juxtaposition of the auditory with the visual. To the extent that there was a narrative, it seemed as if the musical and visual “narrations” were playing out independently of each other. The impact of the visual was not as disruptive to the musical source as William Kentridge’s short films inspired by Franz Schubert’s D. 911 song cycle Die Winterreise had been to the performance of the music taking place while his films were projected in the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater last month; but there was still a sense that music and imagery were working at cross-purposes.
Also, Wong’s background material never explained her choice of title. It may be possible to view Goya’s etchings as demonstrating that war constitutes an “unlearning;” but his images have other messages to deliver that are sharper than the conjecture that war is a process of unlearning. Possibly Wong chose her title in dialectical opposition to the Great Learning book by Confucius (or, perhaps, Cornelius Cardew’s monumental oratorio treatment of that book). Certainly, by the time the piece had concluded, memories of both the haunting vocal sounds of Wong and Kihlstedt and the visual transformation of Goya’s work by Martin and Mollona were far more salient than Wong’s choice of title.
“The Crossing” was another matter. Readers may recall that the advance material suggested that the performance would allow “the audience to experience physically sounds encountered as one moves from a space immersed in music to a place of quiet and calm.” However, an arc of seated musicians (Schocker along with Dyllan Bolles, Sukie O’Kane, Dohee Lee, Adria Otte, Kanoko Nishi, Yunkyong Jin, and Sooyeun Lyuh) gave no sense of motion. Instead, the music was a group improvisation, much like any other, involving both solos and combinations of different sizes. Korean folk instruments were combined with Western instruments along with both chant and texted vocalization. One could, of course, appreciate an overall arc of an energy level rising to a climax and then receding to that “place of quiet and calm” (represented by a few plucks on a Korean zither). Thus, it was not difficult to engage with the performance; but, as was the case with The Unlearning, it was unclear how to associate the title with what one was experiencing.