Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Concert Review: Steve Peters’ “Canções Profundas (Deep Songs)” at Good Shepherd Center 9/25/15

“Canções Profundas (Deep Songs)” is a new evening-length work by Seattle composer Steve Peters. Inspired by research into his family history in the Azores, this evocative sonic poem explores themes of migration, diaspora, memory, identity and emotional/cultural ties to place.

A chain of nine volcanic islands in the mid-Atlantic, the Azores are an isolated region of Portugal and the western-most edge of Europe. American whaling ships began arriving in the 18th century, taking on Azorean men as crew; this began a long pattern of emigration and the establishment of Portuguese enclaves in New England, California, Hawaii, and Canada in which Azorean cultural traditions and contact with the archipelago have persisted."
- From Wayward Music Seattle

The Music:
Field Recordings and Ambient Sounds from the Azores, recorded by Steve Peters; instrumental music composed by Steve Peters

The Band:
Lesli Dalaba, trumpet
Beth Fleenor, clarinets
Paul Kikuchi, percussion
Naomi Siegel, trombone
Greg Sinibaldi, saxophone
Joshua Parmenter, additional electronic processing
Rafael Carvalho, viola da terra (Azorean guitar), recorded.

The music was played in the dark.

The beginning was an enigma of sound: percolating lava pits gurgled and led into a crescendo of sea-sounds. Saxophone and trombone blatted from behind and to the side, not really imitating the ocean noises and not really contrasting with them either; merely providing a man-made commentary. This in turn led to an uncanny soundscape of squeals and chirrups and nasal “ewww-ewww-ewwwws” like strangled wind instruments. I assumed this to be a birdcall, though it was more alien than avian and as bizarre as the Japanese kijibato pigeon, which I call the “repeater” and mentioned in a previous post. (After the performance, Steve Peters answered another audience member’s inquiry about it, that it was the call of the Cory’s shearwater, common in the Azores. He said the first time he heard it, at night, it scared the #:@!! out of him.)

Crickets and barnyard animal sounds provided a brief, overlapped interlude, leading to a sudden quiet and then the tolling of a bell. Now the music entered the world of human sounds; at first chanting and bells in church, then an electronic fantasy of modulating bell-tones and – eventually – recognizable brass bands. The latter met and mingled in an Ivesian cross-jumble, though the music they were playing was clearly from a European tradition. During this, an aspect of the performance came to fore: in the dark, we could see shadows of the players moving, but not exactly what they are doing or what sounds were linked with their movements. Paul Kikuchi was on the stage with percussion – a large gong hung behind him like a dim sun in space, and a shadowy bass drum sat to his right – he moved around and between them and appeared to be playing, but it was far from obvious exactly what parts of the ambience came from him (except for a loud gong roll during the most abstract section). This added a definite sense of mystery…

The marching bands receded into mysterious clicking. These were the songs of sperm whales, which the Azoreans (and Americans) used to hunt in their whaling ships, not the more familiar melodies of humpbacks. The band added quasi-melodic sputters that seemed to emerge from the sea-sounds behind the whales.

With the abrupt appearance of modal melodic material from the band, the piece entered its last section – or last three sections. Mr. Peters said that he intended this part to represent the people (and music) of one place in the world migrating to another place in the world: hence, melodies for clarinet, sax and trombone with ambient accompaniment from a processed Azorean guitar (as always, Ms. Fleenor’s clarinet was perfect here); then more sea-sounds leading to a chaos of (talking) voices, half-heard mechanical sounds, and squawks from the band; then a recap of the same melodies, slower and with birdsongs and bells in the background. Ambient processed guitar: fade to black. End. My reaction to this was that, once I knew what the “program” was, it was completely fitting with the story. However, when hearing it the first time, I thought that the piece could have ended after the first section of melodies, and that there was one too many movements. This could probably be a mental holdover from my earlier experience with Seattle Phonographers’ Union concerts (of which Mr. Peters is a member) – these are unplanned performances (improvisations, really) with sampled sound, and often they have more than one false ending. In that case, it adds to the fun and spontaneity; in this “composed” piece, however, I found it a little overdone. This is my one and only (and very slightly) negative comment; otherwise, “Canções Profundas (Deep Songs)” is a masterpiece by one of Seattle’s musical luminaries.

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