Music of the Earth (Curtis Ensemble 20/21): A place in the natural world

Micah Gleason conducts and sings Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs. Photos by Matt Genders.

Music’s relationship to the natural world is an unsteady one. On one hand, it seems contradictory to celebrate nature using artificial instruments that are, after all, grotesque perversions of natural materials. (Hey, did you know that violin used to be a tree?) The birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees weave a majestic tapestry of sound, but that which we call music is an entirely man-made phenomenon.

On the other hand, art is about exaggeration. If the natural world was enough to resonate with our fragile human sensibilities, we would never have needed to paint pictures or write stories or sing hymns. We demand interpretation, and interpretation demands artifice. The hills may be alive, but it’s our feelings about them that inspire the sound of music.

Take, for instance, Raven Chacon’s The Journey of the Horizontal People for string quartet. In the hands of the Erinys Quartet—the Curtis Institute’s string quartet-in-residence—there is something primal about this music, something elemental. It mimics the unpredictability of nature, its wildness, the tension between linearity and circularity that defines it. Sounds arise only to decay, like echoes losing steam with each repeat. Violins neigh like horses, but really they sound like humans at our most desperate and delirious.

Is this nature? Is it humanity? The Erinys players draw sounds from their acoustic instruments that imitate nature as often as they remind us of that other boundless threat to humankind: electronics. Chacon is keenly aware of the artifice inherent in music-making. Music may once have been a way of honoring mother earth, adding our humble human voices to the whistling of the wind and the rustling of the trees. Eventually, though, music usurped nature. With our strings and our drums and our horns, we made sounds that nature could never have managed on its own. We thought we were hot shit, and we were right—until we created machines that beat us at our own game. Now, the Erinys Quartet brings the musical journey full circle by using these natural-yet-artificial instruments to mimic both the tangible world and the digital one.

This endless conflict between the natural and the artificial forms the backbone of the latest recital by Curtis’s Ensemble 20/21, a group celebrating the music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Dubbed “Music of the Earth,” it’s a musical paean to the natural world, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the music is dripping with anxiety, both about the fate of the world and about the (real or imagined) incompatibility between nature and humans. Because nature is no longer humankind’s bread and butter; it’s no longer something we can take for granted. It’s become rare—like art, like music.

And with Ensemble 20/21, we truly are in the hands of rare material. It is such a unique pleasure to be in the presence of enthusiastic young artists playing music you can’t just find on Spotify. Art may be “important and rare”—to quote the great twenty-first-century philosopher Taylor Swift—but having access to (almost) all of it at (almost) any time has erased the illusion of scarcity, and as a consequence has thrown the very meaning of “important” into question. Is Ludwig van Beethoven more “important” than Camper Van Beethoven? And if so, why? After all, they’re both delivered to us through the same channels. I can program my Spotify queue to play the opening movement of the Kreutzer sonata followed by “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” and the algorithm won’t blink an eye. Continuity is of no concern to our robot overlords.

So while I sort of wish that more contemporary classical music was available to stream, I’m also glad that there is some music out there that hasn’t been incorporated into someone’s market research, that hasn’t been auto-contextualized for me, that allows me the freedom to expect nothing and everything.

Enter Ensemble 20/21. The majority of the works featured in the Music of the Earth concert are by composers who are still living, meaning that they have spent their entire careers overshadowed by the Dead White European Men Whose Names We All Know Quite Well and will probably remain so until they themselves are dead and maybe even after that. Thanks to Curtis and Ensemble 20/21, though, we have a forum to honor these composers, to give them center stage. And the results are something special.

One of those composers is Gulli Björnsson, whose six-movement guitar piece titled Landslög opens the concert. Guitarist Muxin Li plays the piece with an incredible dynamic range while abstract, liminal films play behind her. Both the film and the music seek to feel nature rather than to merely portray it. Again: exaggeration. In the final movement, Li works the extreme high end of the guitar neck, right where the notes start getting tight and choked-sounding. As the notes ascend, so too do they constrict. The higher you go, the more precarious your position.

After Björnsson’s Landslög and Chacon’s journey comes a piece for solo flute by Allison Loggins-Hull. Homeland was inspired by the devastation of Hurricane Maria and seeks to understand “the meaning of home during a crisis,” per the composer’s program notes. The flute may not be the first instrument you or I would choose to communicate such existential terror, but Loggins-Hull takes us there, with the help of Curtis flutist Anastasia Samsel. Once again we witness a player who has astounding control of dynamics. In the hands of Samsel and so many of the 20/21 players, we hear the subtleties and idiosyncrasies in these composers’ works—none of this music is surface-level.

We’re then joined by piano, violin, cello and percussion for Anthozoa, by Curtis alum Gabriella Smith. This unusual quartet delivers us an underwater piece, inspired by the sea creatures of French Polynesia. I don’t know what the hell the sea creatures of French Polynesia sound like, but Smith’s piece covers a vast spectrum of sound, using the whole piano the way good BBQ places use the whole pig. The cello does woozy sprechgesang over wind-up toy percussion. Urgent, jagged violin riffs emerge from the chaos. When the music rises over the playful noise, the harmonic choices are lots of fun.

Suddenly, full piano chords come chiming from behind the still-berserking strings and percussion, first gently and then with extreme prejudice as they try desperately to impose order on the chaos. You want order to win, and it does, I think, but it’s not a blowout. The chaos might quiet down, but I don’t think it’s going away. (After all, this is the sea creatures of French Polynesia we’re talking about here.)

After intermission, we hear an incredibly challenging violin piece from John Luther Adams. Written entirely for open strings and harmonics, Three High Places requires of the soloist—in this case the excellent Leah Amory—the lightest possible touch on the strings, enough to make them sing without making them belt. Amory conjures multicolored sound-worlds from the soft tension between her fingertips and the vibrations of the strings. It’s a hell of a tightrope walk; by the end she might be playing with a feather instead of a bow. High Places indeed.

Our headliner is a set of eleven folk songs by Luciano Berio, the only composer on the program no longer among the living. Scored for seven instruments and one voice, the undeniable highlight of Folk Songs is Micah Gleason, who conducts—or, more accurately, reinterprets the entire art of conducting—while also singing the mezzo-soprano vocal.

It’s easy sometimes to forget that a musical performance requires both music and performance. Much of what we see in classical performance is impressive in the former but painfully austere when it comes to the latter. To play instruments, even to play them extremely well, is not the same as to perform.

This is where Gleason’s talent, already evident in her conducting work with the Curtis Symphony Orchestra, really shines. Gleason recognizes that conducting is a performance art, and she uses it not just to keep time or to manage dynamics but to tell a story, to respond to the music as she’s guiding it along. She’s playing with the musicians instead of merely playing them. Her gestures are dancey, emotive. The ensemble becomes more like a rock band, taking cues not just off the lead singer but off each other as well.

There are points in Berio’s song cycle where the music demands to be more fluid, less “conducted.” Sometimes Gleason gives her fellow players just enough to get started, or takes hold of one song while letting the band run the show for the next. By conducting as part of the ensemble rather than as a separate figure, Gleason reminds us that the conductor’s art is, at its best, a collaborative rather than an instructive one. It need not be staid and predictable, but it also doesn’t have to hog center stage.

Gleason’s final triumph is to shatter the illusion of distance between the conductor and the audience. During the joyful closing number, “Azerbaijan Love Song,” Gleason starts clapping. As she claps along to the beat, the realization grows steadily upon the audience that, holy shit, she wants us to clap along with her.

Is this allowed? Pockets of the audience join in with tentative hands, shocked that they are being asked to acknowledge their own existence. This shock is soon thrown into shadow by a new one: Gleason descends from the stage(!) and skips around the auditorium(!!), clapping and singing all the while. A few more folks start to clap along, but many remain frozen, incapable of registering this turn of events. This was not indicated on the program.

This level of interactivity is alien and discomfiting to an audience accustomed to the hushed solemnity of the concert hall. And thank goodness for it, and for Gleason, doing her part to peel away the veneer of gentility that rightly turns so many would-be fans away from classical music.

Ensemble 20/21 reminds us that this music—which we really must come up with a better name for than classical, long acknowledged as an inadequate and damn near cringeworthy label—is alive, is in fact bursting with life, with innovation and intrigue. Better yet, this music is actually engaging with the world around it, responding to history as it’s happening. These pieces deserve our attention. And with help from Ensemble 20/21, they show the potential to command it.

[Gould Rehearsal Hall, Curtis Institute of Music] November 18, 2023;

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