"Probably if there is one central thing, even more than the love of sound, it is the love of performance."
Keeril Makan was born in New Jersey in 1972, to parents of South-African Indian and Russian Jewish origin. He played the violin as a boy, and grew up surrounded by diverse musical cultures—Western classical, Indian classical, blues, rock—from which he was later to form his own, not by patching together so much as by stripping down, finding common basics, and building up again.
Those common basics naturally include the act of performance, and communication by way of performance, but they also embrace principles within the sonic material: most notably, regularity and resonance. Five seconds of almost any Makan composition will show these features, as pulse and as a bloom of partials on the sound, whether this bloom comes directly from an instrument or from reverberation within the performance space. A classic example is his solo percussion piece Resonance Alloy of 2007, where rapidly repeating strokes, moving over a small array of metal instruments, generate a shifting cloud of hovering sound that moves on slowly through half an hour.
This extraordinary piece is, though, a special case. Makan’s music is generally more impatient, more dynamic, ricocheting in several dimensions between sameness and difference. Take 2, for violin and percussion, which was his breakthrough achievement, dating back to 1998. This starts with the two components locked together reiterating one sound, with a glow of metal resonance on it. (Afterglow is the very appropriate title of a solo piano piece that, coming from the same year as Resonance Alloy, also has to do with resonant effects caused by repetition.) Regularity in Makan’s music, though, is always going to hit up against irregularity. In the case of 2, the instruments stop, and then they go on again, but not for so long. Other things change, and what you thought was the music comes to seem like the obstacle to the music, which is emerging now as something less regular – though only to become in turn regular, and the obstacle to some other music. Eventually there arrives a lament, which, in terms of sources, could be Scottish or Chinese, but which also, in its registration for violin and echoing percussion, sounds like nothing else. Here one might recognize how “resonance” has another meaning, how the music resonates not only in itself but with traditions beyond. References are not sought; rather, they spring to life as sympathetic vibrations, and might well be different for different listeners.
When he wrote this piece, Makan was still a student, on the doctoral program at U. C. Berkeley, where his teachers included Edmund Campion, Jorge Liderman, and David Wessel. He completed his doctorate in 2004, after spending a year in Finland and two in France, and began his teaching career at the University of Illinois. Two years later, he moved to M. I. T.
Makan has composed an opera, Persona, to a libretto by Jay Scheib after the Ingmar Bergman film, but most of his output so far has been for instrumental resources. Ensembles for which he has written include—besides tonight’s group—the American Composers Orchestra (Dream Lightly, with solo electric guitar, played at Carnegie Hall just over six years ago), the Scharoun Ensemble of Berlin, California EAR Unit, and the Del Sol, Kronos, and Pacifica string quartets. There are albums devoted to his work on Tzadik (Kronos Quartet and Paul Dresher Ensemble), Starkland (Either/Or), and mode (ICE).
Makan’s new piece is music of grand gyrations, like the composition that will follow after intermission, but this time for a larger ensemble—of woodwind, brass, and string soloists with two xylophones and a harp—and completing its course in about half the time: under half an hour. This is also another of Makan’s great titles. If we knew the sky, then what? Yes, we might want to agree, there is nothing more unknown and unknowable than the sky, which is always there and always different, and which our gaze tends to ignore in favor of what is, like us, earthbound. But then what? The proposition is left off halfway, open.
Setting the work in motion, the two vibraphones shake a low-middle G sharp, one of them in even eighth-notes but with irregular accents, which the other reinforces, the dynamic level increasing in steps. The music is initiatory, waiting for something to happen, and eventually something does. A fundamental A is established by the two low string instruments, and the work begins to unfold its most characteristic texture: progressions of parallel, exquisitely dissonant chords, sometimes rotating on more than one temporal level, here more or less ignoring louder octaves. F sharps, on the vibraphones and harp, set a new fundamental, over which a new process of growth starts. Some way into this, a rising scale figure is introduced, a memento from Letting Time Circle Through Us.
This brings us to about a quarter of the way through the piece, and most of the constituents are in place—but not all, for, while sharing something of the cyclical nature of its predecessor, If We Knew The Sky also keeps turning in new directions, perhaps not so much a circle as a helix. Different aspects and different energies are encountered in this steady exploratory motion, and though tremulant eighth-note repercussions recur, they are never as they were at the beginning, being altered in position, instrumentation, and speed. Much of the piece has all the instruments in play in music of buoyancy and drive, after which, when the eighth-note impulses come back, they are transformed, and they signal something quite different.
Playing for almost fifty minutes, this piece was composed in 2013 to a commission from Either/Or, which gave the first performance eight months ago at M. I. T. It is by some way Makan’s longest work to date, excepting only his opera Persona, which he completed the year before. It is also a beautiful, serene, and yet at the same time electric adventure into a time world of sweeping rotations within an essential changelessness – of movement where there is no movement. This stillness of imminence he had found before in parts of works (the opening of his 2007 string quartet Washed by Fire, for instance), but never for so long. Listening to it here, we may well feel ourselves in the presence of time circling through us.
Just six players are involved: three on instruments having strings that are hammered or plucked (piano, cimbalom, guitar), two on instruments whose strings are bowed (violin and cello), and one adding high-treble brilliance on crotales or glockenspiel. Together they generate a whole range of bell-like sonorities through which two relative strangers – though strangers who are central, the violin and the cello – glide.
The music breathes out from simplicity to complexity and back again, starting out on an A drone projected by the violin from two of its strings, one open, the other stopped, the sound given a quality of quietness and distance—and a glistening aura of harmonics—by the use of a metal practice mute combined with vibrato-free playing close to the bridge. Other notes are invited to participate—the G below and the B above—and so the requisites are assembled for what the piano can then come to introduce as the work’s primary harmonic gesture, a kind of exhalation from the fourth E–A to the major third G–B., which the piano shares with progressively more of the ensemble, in frank and generous exchanges.
In a way, this is all there is, and no more is needed—though much more accretes around this basic image as the work progresses. There are elements that return, like the phases of the moon, including not only this harmonic motif—though its reappearances are always much briefer, and find new possibilities of variation each time—but also what comes next, sounding like the chiming of innumerable clocks, in octaves, all going at different rates. Other episodes arrive only once, like the rush of intricate white-note counterpoint on cimbalom and guitar. Sometimes, there is the sense of a cosmic machinery; at other times, the focus narrows to an almost domestic scene of quiet conversation between violin and cello.
These are some of the constituents. It is with and through them that the work majestically conveys itself.