I have been especially attracted to music that has a visual component of late. I get excited when concerts include film projections, and I often find myself reaching for the recordings packaged with DVDs first. I know there are those who would say that this reflects a childish inability to focus on recorded sound without fiddling with my cell phone. Admittedly, this may not be entirely off base, and visual presentations that accompany music can run the risk of simultaneously adding and subtracting (or sometimes only subtracting) from the experience. More often, however, I find that they provide a banister into certain new works on first listen and a kind of bonus poetry to music that is already familiar.
I got to thinking about all this again while listening to Due East’s drawn only once (late to the game, seven months after its release date—my apologies), a recording from the duo of flutist Erin Lesser and percussionist Greg Beyer, produced with a small cast of additional players. The album comes packaged as both an audio-only CD recording of two works by John Supko, as well as a 5.1 surround sound DVD which features accompanying videos by Kristine Marx and Don Sheehy.
To my eye, I couldn’t divorce the quick-cut style of abstract and processed imagery used in both video pieces from the way a feed of Instagram snapshots offers snatches of experience, shared and made romantic through filters and reinterpretation at a remove, half-glimpsed understandings of the intimate experiences of others.
This fit neatly with the push and pull of the music itself while leaving plenty of air in the room and sidestepping the idea that there was any sort of direct soundtracking occurring. Both pieces ride a disquiet of rapid motion that contrasts with a simultaneously delivered deeper meditative and exploratory spirit. (See liner notes for Supko’s discussion of his use of “tuned randomness” in the works, and a deeper analysis of how and why these aural images are created.)
The opening track, This Window Makes Me Feel, begins with a kind of inability to start, the closely mic’d shuffling pages and the stammer of breath the only sounds accompanying the visual images caught through (appropriately) windows, first bucolic and then urban in flavor (Hello, NYC pedestrians!). The narrator is hesitant to begin, apologetic even, and then she finally lets loose her rapid whisper of Robert Fitterman’s poem of the same name, only some of the words and phrases coming to the surface clearly—again, as with the visual, more of a half-grasped overheard confession than a message intended for the listener directly.
Beneath and around this 15-minute vocal bed, the breathing flutter of flute, the spare piano (David Broome) and percussion tones, the long pure notes sung by Hai-Ting Chinn (who makes an incantation out the work’s title) and plenty of ambient bits from the city streets ground the piece, anchoring the fidgeting admissions in the embrace of the wider, heavier world.
While the opening work carries a decidedly personal, perhaps even voyeuristic, and urban flavor, the latter, Littoral, feels both more outward looking and more expansive in scope (and not just because it clocks in at a lengthier 35 minutes). Here again the momentum to begin is slow to gain speed, the flute the most aggressive player in the fight to get free of the lethargy, though the percussion keeps at her heels. The tension ratchets up one notch at a time, and it’s not until more than eight minutes in that the first of the piece’s two text sources enters, recited by the author: Cees Nooteboom’s poem “Cartography (for Christina Barrosa)”. The flute and percussion weave in and around the language, reaching up and out until, in the middle of the poem, they suddenly fall, and the line goes fuzzy as if the listener has slipped out of signal range and a much stranger message in a bottle has drifted in to take its place. Up to this point in the work, the listener has been hearing (and seeing, for those watching along at home) allusions to large bodies of water, riding the sway of the current both by ear and by eye, but now a processed voice (the composer’s) narrates an excerpt from Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation (2nd edition, 1598-1600). As this glimpse of an historical ghost fades back into the spray. Nooteboom’s poetry returns, the pulse is up, the character sharper and more insistent. By the piece’s concluding moments, the pace may have cooled down again, but it’s been a tough voyage and we are all dirty and out of breath, a little older than when we embarked.