Notes on “the labor of forgetting”

by Ryan MacEvoy McCullough, late summer 2022

There is strangely enduring appeal in scenes of slow disintegration: a beach carpeted with brick fragments near the defunct factory that once produced them; a dismantled television resting in the woods near its companion couch; overgrown train cars queued under a busy road; a building once adorned with advertisements—maybe a popular soda or tincture—framing the sky with weathered shadows of letters; an old vine, annually dressed in vibrant leaves, (re)learns to climb around an age-rippled window; a ship floats in the water that gradually dissolves it… None of these scenes are necessarily beautiful, nor their immediate surroundings otherwise remarkable. But there is something entrancing about the dynamism of these relationships, that particularly kinetic stasis of articulated transformation, original forms framed by fissures of a labored return towards equilibrium.

However one might choose to describe such scenes (decrepitude or nostalgia), this complex atmosphere encapsulates the emotional and aesthetic worlds of the works featured on this album: Dante De Silva’s Shibui and Four Years of Fog for solo piano, and Katherine Balch’s song cycle estrangement, a setting of Katie Ford’s poetic body blow by the same name. While all these works present autobiographically, each is tailored with enough objective distance from their subjects to maintain universality, in part by exploring emotional worlds that can seem vanishingly transient. One might think of this album like an old reel of film, each frame encountering the harsh light of a projector for the first time in decades and, given age and fragility, perhaps the last.

Closest to home is Shibui—a dirge in memory of my mentor, Deborah Clasquin, both for its composer and performer. Dr. Clasquin was an extraordinary pianist and pedagogue who taught at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California. Deborah was a life-changing influence for both Dante and me, and while our studies with her were years apart, we connected over a shared recognition that her influence on our musical lives had been nothing short of monumental.

Deborah Clasquin playing a transcription of Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby” (a transcription I made for her in 2004)

When Deborah died from complications of pancreatic cancer in 2009, both Dante and I felt like a significant part of our musical world had been hollowed out. Dante wrote Shibui as a short elegy for me to perform at Deborah’s memorial, and captured so much of Deborah’s musical spirit in just two pages of simple, elegant music. The work is built around a kaleidoscopic quotation of Bartók’s own Élegy op. 8b no. 1 (one of Deborah’s favorite composers), so well integrated as to appear invisible, yet every note is never more than one or two degrees away from its source, just like the enduring influence of the person it honors. This careful balance of form and fantasy is captured in the title, Shibui, a Japanese aesthetic (literally “astringent”) that describes the dichotomistic nature of beautiful things: pain/pleasure, sweet/sour, order/chaos, often sense-associated with unripe persimmon.

As a complement to this memorialization, Four Years of Fog presents as a kind of yellowed photo album from De Silva’s undergraduate years when he studied with Dr. Clasquin. These snapshots are not necessarily organized by specific events or experiences, but rather the states of mind and attitudes towards living one experiences in one’s transitional late teens and early twenties, woven within a musical fabric highly reminiscent of Debussy (another of Dr. Clasquin’s favorites). The emotional oscillations of bright, bushy optimism with apparent social expulsion, emergent self-discovery and wholesale rejection, are distorted by a surreal sonic lens: for this piece, De Silva ventured into the esoteric world of alternative tuning systems, seeking a sound world that could lend the music a feeling of vibrancy while also implying a sense of lost time and even childlike wonder. The effect is often one of cloudy resonance, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that Humboldt county, where these four years take place, has an honest reputation for being continually blanketed in fog.

There is a long and storied tradition of composers bucking the ‘hegemony of equal temperament,’ certainly in the musical avant-garde, but also in the world of historically informed performance. Maverick composers like Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, Wendy Carlos, and Ben Johnston built compositional careers around a near-apostatical obsession with acoustically ‘pure’ intervals, and the formal-mystical implications of these sounds. These works often run headlong into the reality of physical resistance from instruments and their owners, though part of the potential power of this music is artful play against the tension created by such conflicts of expectation. Our ears are literally ‘tuned’ through experience, but what good is any tuning without the delight of cracks between the notes?

Tuning system diagrams from Four Years of Fog

The delight is in the details, since the benefit of building a tuning system specifically for the compositional needs of a new work is a near total integration of that work’s musical material with the instrument’s acoustic behavior. De Silva’s tuning system is no exception, and is surprisingly simple. Starting from C4 (middle C), the tuning begins with an array of pure major thirds (representing a frequency ratio of 5:4): Dbb3-Fb3-Ab3-C4–E4-G#4-B#5. Astute observers will notice that “Dbb3” and “B#5” appear as euphemisms for “C3” and “C5”, a pure octave above and below middle C, and you would be right, except for the reality that three pure major thirds in a row do not equal an octave—visit this page and start button mashing your keyboard if you’d like to explore this phenomenon. From each of these ‘seeds,’ one tunes an array of pure perfect 5ths (representing a frequency ratio of 3:2) both up and down the keyboard: for example, starting from Ab3, one would tune upwards Eb4-Bb4-F5-C6, and so on, and downwards Db3-Gb2-Cb2-Fb1, etc, and then on to the next seed. The composite effect of these tuning arrays is that most major triads across the keyboard have an uncanny smoothness, where each note in any given major triad is almost entirely absorbed into a rich cloud of resonance with its neighbors. This is the sound of a string or wind trio, or any instrument that can tune to its companion voices, a strange sensation for a pianist (or anyone) accustomed to the compromised intervals of standard equal temperament. In equal tempered world, the piano is most “in tune” when it is actually artfully rendered equally out of tune across the board. In fact, much of the technique of piano playing is to ‘voice’ chords such that each note of the chord blends with its neighbors as much as possible—in a ‘just tuned’ world, such as in Four Years of Fog, much of that technique is rendered obsolete, since most harmonies ‘blend’ with almost no effort. The compromise in De Silva’s system, as eluded to earlier (and with fixed temperaments of any kind there is always compromise), is that there are exactly zero pure octaves anywhere on the keyboard. This is strange for an instrument whose literal key layout is designed around the concept of “repetition at the octave”, and is at first disorienting, especially coming directly from a conventionally tuned piano.

In a sense, that these uncannily colorful fistfuls of sonic candy corn subvert the octave, standard-bearer of Western theoretical logic, almost suggests that the harmonic language of the piece is itself making a point about the Faustian gambles of early adulthood: a carnal idealism that is ultimately the cause of its own undoing. Appropriately, the work’s final movement depicts a self-aware escape from “the fog” (what De Silva terms The Local Zenith), ending with a celebratory crash, a moment of irreverent joy that would delight an eternal child like Harry Partch.

Finally, estrangement by Katie Ford and Katherine Balch explores a relationship in the final (or even post-facto) stages of disintegration. Originally commissioned by the Brooklyn Art Song Society for its 2021 “New Voices Festival,” the work was intended as a modern response to Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe, and was created with a dual purpose in mind—it could either be interleaved with Dichterliebe, or stand on its own, but Schumann/Heine would be like ghosts in the rafters, invisible yet unnervingly present.

Balch’s concert plan for integration with Schumann’s Dichterliebe

Balch and Ford’s early discussions about the collaboration settled on the idea of retelling Heine’s hyper-masculine tale of chivalrous love from the perspective of those poems’ invisible female antagonist. Ford felt some amount of trepidation about the project, not about the collaboration itself, but with the notion of responding to poetry that by even conservative modern standards reads as a toxic celebration of fragile masculinity—the obsession with all-consuming love, heroic accounts of amorous exploits, jilted feints of abandonment, pleas of self-destructive co-dependency… similar conversations have been had about Schubert/Müller’s Die Schöne Müllerin, in which the male protagonist, increasingly obsessed with his employer’s daughter, begins a furious descent into self-victimization that in many ways resembles modern accounts of incel culture (as it turns out, Schubert’s setting of Müller’s original text was remarkably tactful, given that it omitted some of Müller’s most offensive expressions of emotional violence directed at the fictional girl). Similarly in Heine’s text, the narrator bitterly recounts the tale where “a youth loved a maiden who chose another: the other loved another girl, and married her. The maiden married, from spite, the first and best man that she met with: the youth was sickened at it… the one whom she turns aside, she breaks his heart in two.”

If only she wasn’t so shallow she might understand the vastness of my love for her

Ford said it was hard to write a response that didn’t feel contrived, and claimed this poem vexed her in the time during and after its creation. In fact, the poem was built from fragments that had not yet found a home, part of a larger output of works exploring fractured relationships and a longing for connection. “I don’t want to be in this subject anymore,” Fold told me, ”indifference from the subject matter means you’ve moved through it.” Ford ultimately settled on a concept whereby the woman, who has experienced a “great love” that proved to be unattainable, ‘settles’ for a series of lesser loves in which each is an attempt at some facet of that original ideal. In what one might consider an act of revenge poetry, Ford asserted that Heine himself “was one of the thrown away loves,” underscored in one particularly poignant section: “She rarely recalled other men—/they offered only a wick/of predetermined length,/none need even blow it out.” Why should she feel any obligation to love someone, especially “the one whom she turns aside?” There is no attempt at moral superiority over Heine’s text, rather a kind of equalization highlighting the ways in which relationships can resemble a form of religious devotion, for better or worse. In this sense, it is no surprise that Ford, who studied theology, often describes the pursuit of a more perfect love as if it were a kind of spiritual journey.

Only once did she feel loved by a man on what we might call
the wash of the cellular level

No—; twice—; the second only occurring to her now
                 in the act of counting and revision of that count.
the aftermath of having known, once, and still—he must be somewhere

—from estrangement, by Katie Ford

[For those who are interested in Ford’s work, an extended version of estrangement can be found in the May/June issue of American Poetry Review, and the final version will be published by Graywolf Press in 2024 (more info at her website).]

Ford has written, “I think a theology that begins with this posture—I scarcely know what to say—would serve us well,” a statement that perfectly captures how Balch’s score interacts with Ford’s text. Balch’s text-setting often resembles a high school DNA experiment—loose proteins and other molecular detritus drawn through an agar solution by an electric current, a universal fact demonstrated in painstaking slow motion. This is not to suggest disconnection from Ford’s narrative. Rather, Balch attempts to describe something for which there are no words—the physical sensation of not yet understanding one’s own thoughts. Lines of text spontaneously combust, mid-sentence, into their phonemic parts, as if to imply the chaos of a sudden realization; text that has previously been sung, or is yet to be heard, appears like the shadow of a passing cloud; words and lines are repeated so obsessively that their meaning dissolves into mats of acoustic contours; and piano and voice often behave interchangeably, as if to suggest Ford’s text has been translated into some form of universal binary. If Ford’s poetry is the ink on the page, Balch’s music is like the fibers of the paper, a chaotic network of capillary wicks spontaneously drawing the dye in every imaginable direction. None of this, however, is arbitrary; Balch always knows exactly what she wants.

Balch’s colorful score, rife with quotation, is a true lynchpin for this tale of isolation: voice and piano, often intentionally blended, form a joint canvas, allowing Ford’s text to hint at a shared life infinitely larger (and more conjoined) than the sum of its parts. If “cinema is the art of destroying moving images,” as film historian Paulo Cherchi-Uchai has asserted, Balch’s music artfully melds the refuse of discarded frames.

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