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Composer Portraits: Marcos Balter

Introduction 

I love coming across things that I don’t understand, because that gives me an opportunity to stop, and figure out this new thing, and maybe incorporate some of it into my life. —Marcos Balter 

There are pieces on this evening’s program that came about from encounters with things just on the cusp of comprehensibility: the almost lost inscriptions that cross Cy Twombly’s paintings, or Luigi Serafini’s strange and entrancing Codex Seraphinianus of 1981, an encyclopedia of unknown life forms and structures, all in an invented script with its own alphabet. We may feel that Marcos Balter’s compositions not only respond to such art works but join them, as things that seem to make more sense than we can fully decipher, things packed with information, some of it immediately registered and understood, some of it over the edge, into a zone of fascinating inscrutability.

Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1974, Balter underwent conservatory training in his home city and took private lessons in his late teens with José Antônio Rezende de Almeida Prado, a composer who had studied in Paris with Olivier Messiaen and at Darmstadt with György Ligeti. In 1996, having graduated from the Conservatório Brasileiro de Música, he moved to the United States to continue his education, first at Texas Christian University, then at Northwestern, where his main teacher was Jay Alan Yim. He then started his teaching career at Columbia College Chicago (2009-14) before joining the faculty at Montclair State University.

Over the last fifteen years he has put together a sizeable catalogue of pieces, mostly for solo instrument or small groupings, tonight’s selection being thoroughly representative – besides offering full and varied evidence of the relationships he has formed with the musicians of ICE, as an ensemble and as individuals. Last year these musicians released a portrait CD on the Tundra label, Æsopica, whose program includes tonight’s Codex Seraphinianus and Descent from Parnassus.

In moving toward information breakdown, Balter has found himself pushing performers and their instruments to the limits, claiming a patch of wilderness neighboring composers such as Salvatore Sciarrino or Beat Furrer, with Ligeti and Feldman also in the vicinity. At the same time, he responds to a wider range of musical traditions: “American jazz and improvisation (thinking Mingus and Braxton) are very big influences on my thinking,” he has said. “The invitation to listen to sonic transience/instability comes from artists like Pauline Oliveros and Alvin Lucier. Afro-Brazilian music definitely influenced my thinking in terms of discourse fueled by timbre and texture.”

 

Descent from Parnassus for amplified solo flute 
Composed in 2012. 

The commission came from the Art Institute of Chicago, for a piece for Claire Chase to perform in front of a work in the museum’s collection. Balter decided on Cy Twombly’s The First Part of the Return from Parnassus, and happily found his choice thoroughly endorsed by Chase. The resulting piece plays for ten minutes or so.

Twombly found his title in that of an anonymous play of Shakespeare’s time, but the idea of Parnassus, the mountain home of Apollo and the Muses, sent Balter to Dante, and to the beginning of the Paradiso, where the poet, having descended from Parnassus, feels unable to express his recollections. Verses from this point in the poem are sung or spoken throughout, but since the performer is at the same time presenting a highly virtuoso flute piece, much of her breath is diverted from the words. Dante’s articulate inarticulacy becomes the flutist’s, right here and now.

Perhaps for that reason, as it may seem, she keeps going back and repeating, in smaller and larger circles, sometimes with changes – revolving in a way that is, as we will find, characteristic of Balter’s thinking. Even so, the text, in the original Italian, inevitably resists intelligibility, even if we may well understand that what we are experiencing is a kind of duet for soloist, for a musician acting as both flutist and reciter, these two activities getting in each other’s way, frustrating each other, with the wonder of the piece partly in that very frustration.

The case is further complicated by the constantly fluctuating technical requirements, with regard both to the voice (singing, speech, breathy speech, speech sounds cut off ) and to the flute (again breathy sounds, key clicks, overblowing to release harmonics). “The fun part,” Balter adds, “is to negotiate a few contradictory pairings,” as where the performer must immediately cut off a spoken syllable while giving full value to a flute note. Speed ups the ante.

 

Landscape of Fear for sopranino saxophone and piccolo trumpet
Composed in 2015. 

As with Descent from Parnassus, this piece is being played this evening by the musicians for whom it was written: Peter Evans and Ryan Muncy. Their instruments are the highest members of their respective families, and have similar ranges in the high treble. The effect such instruments make is always going to be acute, intense, but nowhere more than here.

Balter has them working closely together – at ultimate speed – but also allows for individual variation, which will come partly from the deliberate inexactness of the notation, partly from divagations the two instrumentalists are invited to undertake as they play the piece and replay it. So far as the inexactness is concerned, Balter offers not regular staff notation but just three lines with broad spaces between them, representing at the start the entire range for each instrument (roughly three octaves) but later outlining more confined spaces. In whatever register, Balter asks for microtonal tunings.

Both musicians play from the same part, five times over, with variations in range and interplay, the latter sometimes improvised. In pursuing the requirements, whether playing together or apart, the performers are encouraged to live dangerously for five minutes or so

 

Raw Item for oboe with harp, piano, cello, and percussion
Composed in 2005. 

After two pieces of (literally for the players) breathtaking speed comes one where the demands, just as exacting, are more on precision of sound and intricacy of intertwining. This is also the oldest piece on the program, coming from the time when the composer was still at Northwestern.

The oboe, Balter notes on the score of this piece, “has always been one of my favorite instruments, not only for its beautiful innate sound but also because of its wide color pallette and flexibility of sound manipulation.” It needs all those strengths here, where it plays as a soloist and also has to relate to a quartet that might have been chosen to be as different from the oboe, and as diverse within itself, as possible.

To begin with, there is maximum separation. The oboe is expressing its character in beautiful loops of melody and quick note repetitions, while the quartet – and each instrument within the quartet – has business of its own, the piano repeating a couple of patterns, the harp picking out notes here and there, the percussionist creating a shivering background by bowing on and shaking a vessel of water, and the cellist investigating eighth-tones.

Pretty soon, connections begin to arise. The oboe picks up microtonality from the cello, notes begin to echo through the whole ensemble (including the percussionist, now on chimes), and the oboe’s multiphonics are matched by cascades from harp and piano. Around the halfway mark, as harp and cello both cease a while, piano and vibraphone come to insist on a treble-register D, and though this is a note the oboe instigated, it somehow cannot now get back there, repeating the D sharp a half step away until it, too, falls silent. Then some new common ground is discovered, though, as the oboe starts to remember its past, it is again overtaken by separateness.

This is a very skillfully managed musical drama, but at the same time an allegory of human feelings of belonging and exclusion – an allegory particularly relevant to the immigrant experience. You arrive. You don’t understand the rules or the relationships. You learn to fit in and at the same time gain acceptance. But you don’t want to lose your individuality entirely. It may be relevant that where the ensemble here is most thoroughly mixed it is most Brazilian.

 

Codex Seraphinianus for flute, saxophone, bassoon, and viola
Composed in 2014. 

The original Codex Seraphinianus, made by an artist-designer of whom very little is known, and obviously modeled on the fifteenth-century Voynich Manuscript, is a volume no-one can read, about phenomena no-one has seen, from a world in which the categories of human, animal, vegetal, and constructed blend into one another in processes of metamorphosis. Where a normal encyclopedia is a book of knowledge, this is a book of beguiling and multifarious ignorance. Balter, drawing again on the resources of an unusual mixed quartet, gives it its Carnival of the Animals. Playing for around eighteen minutes, the work is in eleven movements, as follows below, many of them with quarter-tone tuning. The spirit of Ligeti is near.

I. Flora – Bassoon solo, on repeat brushed by other instruments.

II. Fauna – Compact essay in how the unchanging (a sforzando chord) can become unpredictable. 

III. Bipeds – Micro-concerto for flute. 

IV. Hermetica – Toccata for conjoined wind instruments. 

V. Machinery – Medieval organum for whistling violist playing harmonics, eventually with delicate backing. 

VI. Anthropology – Whorls upon whorls upon whorls, all repeated, and then more. 

VII. Register: Albertine Gone – Albertine, of course, is Proust’s, from a unique reference in the codex to earthly literature. Skitters on repeated notes transform themselves into cool harmonies. 

VIII. Linguistics – The whole preceding movement is repeated, but without discernible pitches, only air sounds and mechanical noises. 

IX. Culture – Rough chorale for fluttertonguing flute, low viola with fierce bow pressure, and bassoon multiphonics. 

X. Games – Further exquisite estranged harmonies, from saxophone (playing two notes at a time) joined by flute and bassoon, with occasional pools of consonance. 

XI. Architecture – A solemn incantation from everyone in unison, getting more and more out of step as the chant is repeated. 

 

Violin Concerto 
Composed in 2016. 

Commissioned by ICE for a concert the ensemble gave at last year’s Mostly Mozart festival, this piece is again being played here by the musicians who gave the first performance, including David Bowlin as soloist. The work is one of Balter’s biggest so far, in terms of both its length (sixteen minutes) and its scoring, for solo violin with ten players: four winds (flute, clarinet, soprano sax, bassoon), a percussive group (acoustic guitar, piano, percussion) and string trio.

Perhaps bearing in mind the circumstances of the commission, Balter came up with a regular concerto in three movements, having Classical aspects of sophistication, alacrity, and grace. The first movement starts out as a machine of irregular impulses and flurries, which the soloist joins – and changes – with playing that is soon skidding into high harmonics. A crisis point comes with thuds on the bass drum that stop the soloist in his tracks. By the time he re-enters, the movement is coming to its end.

He goes on to begin the slow movement alone, figuring around the notes of his instrument’s tuning, playing with mute and close to the fingerboard, where the sound is fragile, fraying into harmonics. When the ensemble enters, he and they pass through one chordal doorway after another, and return. Chimes ring out, and the solo violin’s high harmonics seem to spin through resonances. Through reminiscences, the movement continues to its final dissolve.

The finale is a perpetuum mobile for the soloist, moving through regions at once mechanical and vitally alive. After the ensemble catches on to the soloist’s agility, the tempo slows a little and the music lifts off into a light-filled sky of rapid revolves, trills and tremolos. The switch back is soon followed by a cadenza, and a quick close.

 

—Notes by Paul Griffiths