by Lindsay Koob
I've heard quite a bit of top-notch music this year at John Kennedy’s Music in Time (MIT) series, but I'd peg Sunday’s as the best thus far. The entire concert was devoted to The Time Gallery, a 45-minute single chamber work (for piano plus assorted instruments and LOTS of percussion) by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Moravec that explores the nature of time. In terms of both how we’ve measured it in ages past and how it figures in human existence. Moravec himself was there to talk us through it.
Ancient man gradually came to measure primitive time by the celestial cycles of sun, moon, and starsas well as the revolving seasons. But man has learned to shape time to his requirements, “Like a sculptor shapes clay," said Moravec. One of the early instances of such time-shaping is found in the ancient daily prayer-cycles (or canonical hours) of the early Christian Church: Matins, Lauds, Vespers, Compline, etc. And, at major churches and monasteries, these “hours” were invariably announced by bells.
Thus the first movement — preceded by a pre-recorded bell-ding — seeks to evoke a sense of daily routine punctuated by the actual pealing of instrumental bells (keeping the two percussionists quite busy).
“Think of it as a day in the lives of medieval Benedictine monks going about their monastic duties,” said Moravec.
The following movement — ushered in by steady ticking — took things to the next step, namely the development of the clock: the first fairly accurate means of “time technology” that allowed us to subdivide units of time (hours to minutes to seconds) and keep precise track of it. The music, understandably, is rhythmically vital, with a distinctly mechanical feel to it. The following movement returned us to the more primal rhythmic timekeeping of the human heart — no surprise that this often mysterious, organic-sounding music was preceded by the recorded “lub-thump” of an actual heartbeat.
But it was the final movement — all about time as encapsulated in the human memory — that touched me most deeply. Something of an emotional roller-coaster, it evoked life’s inevitable ups and downs that we all carry in our memory banks. Savage drum-strokes evoked cowering moments of fear and brutal violence. Particularly lush and lovely passages recalled dreamy reveries — even intense nostalgia — or so it seemed to me. And the work ended with a low, sustained single tone, which took my imagination back to the human heart and its inescapable fate. Could that long, straight tone have been the “flatline” that, under medical circumstances, signals the end of a human life and the unique memory-world that dies with it?
In a brief chat with Moravec afterwards, I asked him if my final-movement perceptions were even remotely valid. He neither confirmed nor denied them — but his smile seemed to say that he was happy to hear that his music had provoked such reactions from an appreciative listener.
Moravec — complex and virtuosic as this wondrous music is — writes in a thoroughly tonal and highly accessible style that most listeners will ponder long after the music stops. And it was rendered here with tremendous skill and haunting emotion by pianist Lydia Brown and instrumentalists from the Spoleto Festival Orchestra.
Why won’t this music let go of me? I need to find a good recording …. (HINT!)