Thresholds and Transitions: Tim Munro’s New York Solo Debut
If there’s one thing you might safely expect from a Tim Munro concert, it’s not merely that it will contain the unexpected, but that the unexpected will hold centerstage. Munro (b. 1978) has pointedly not organized a menu of greatest hits replete with virtuoso pablum for his New York solo debut. Casting aside the standard showcases of silver-toned sweetness, he presents a program entirely of living composers (including two world premieres) who aid and abet Munro’s fascination with the theatrical and performative dimensions of his instrument. If the avant-garde became known for its preoccupation with “extended-playing” techniques, Munro updates the experimental impulse for the 21st century with a bold vision of what it means to play the flute.
This entails a little help from the friends who join Munro in performance, as well as from the lighting designer Mary Ellen Stebbins, who creates a unique atmosphere for each piece. Munro explains that the contributions from Stebbins range from evoking something “very small and human, with a ‘living room’ feel in one piece,” to designs that “go big and wide” and “paint landscapes at dusk with color.”
“I like shaping programs that take us to strange and unexpected places,” says Munro. The germinal idea for this particular program began with the commission of Christopher Cerrone’s Liminal Highway, the culmination of this evening’s concert. Images of thresholds and transitions — between waking and sleeping, sleeping and dreaming, dawn and dark, clarity and mystery — recur across several of the pieces. There’s an autobiographical dimension as well: it was last year that the Brisbane-born Munro, who makes his home in Chicago, began his transition to a freelance solo career after serving as co-artistic director and flutist with the internationally acclaimed new music group eighth blackbird for nearly a decade. But even more than any overarching theme, the program is imbued with Munro’s sense of whimsical adventure and radiant beauty — a contemporary slant, perhaps, on the Romantic yearning for the sublime.
Malin Bång: Alpha Waves (2008)
Swedish composer Malin Bång (b. 1974), who is based in Stockholm, sets the stage with a reflection on the sleeping brain. The entire sleep cycle, she writes, involves “a paradox of complex motions and deep tranquility entwined in one simultaneous action. During the first three phases of the cycle we are moving from a light and easily disturbed sleep towards heavy and deep sleep, while the muscle activity and eye movements slowly disappear. During the fourth phase the extremely slow brain signals called delta waves appear and take over. But only until the dream sleep suddenly captures us and throws us into its world of chaos and unpredictable challenges...”
Alpha Waves uses the flute as a vehicle to chart the physical and mental “breakdown” that occurs during the surrender to sleep. Bång creates a kind of unselfconscious monologue by moving rapidly across a widely varied spectrum of techniques and unusual sonorities: inhaling and exhaling, whispering without use of vocal cords, singing with the upper voice register into the closed mouthpiece, trumpet imitations, key slaps, and rapid tongue movements inside the mouth.
Tom Johnson: Counting Duets (1982)
From the countdown to sleep to ... counting sheep? Munro sets his flute aside entirely as he turns to the outrageous humor of a Minimalist classic by the American composer Tom Johnson (b. 1939), a student of Morton Feldman who resettled in Paris in the early 1980s (shortly after writing this piece). “These days our devices do much of our counting for us, but we continue to do a lot of counting,” writes Johnson. “...The formalistic, religious, arithmetic, psychological, linguistic, and musical implications of counting interest me a great deal and since I have a special love for patterns and numbers anyway, I have focused much of my work in this direction. There must be countless ways of counting...”
David Reminick: Seven Somniloquies (2016)
Chicago-based David Reminick (b. 1979) is a composer and performer who was the founding saxophonist for the renowned new-music group International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). He is also the singer and guitarist for the post-punk band Paper Mice. While Reminick has previously performed with Munro — the two first met while students at Oberlin College — Seven Somniloquies is his first composition specifically for the flutist. Last month they gave its world premiere in Chicago; this is the New York premiere.
A “somniloquy” is an instance of talking in one’s sleep. Reminick gathered the texts for Seven Somniloquies by jotting down or recording his partner, Gabriela Zapata-Alma, during her sleep. Somniloquies is the first part of a larger work in progress, Sleep Cycle for 14 voices, flute, and ensemble, which involves lullabies and transcriptions of friends’ dreams as well. It also manifests Reminick’s ongoing preoccupation with writing for singing instrumentalists (as in The Ancestral Mousetrap for Chicago’s Spektral Quartet).
Calling for a singing flutist, Somniloquies traverses a variety of contrasting emotional states, yet Reminick was surprised by “the amount of repetition” and “seeming coherence” he discovered in these supposedly random statements. Some of the movements begin immediately with Munro’s playing and singing; others (“Face Cake” “Gadgets”) have longer instrumental “preludes” before the voice joins in. Munro, whose early musical experiences came from choir singing, is cast as the “singing flutist,” the part-rhapsodic, part-comic bard who relays these messages from the grey zone between awareness and dreaming.
Kate Soper: Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say (2010-11)
Composer, vocalist, writer, and scholar Kate Soper (b. 1981) shares Munro’s fascination with exploring the theatrical dimensions and expressive limits of her instrument. She envisioned this work as a way to do so as both composer and performer. “I wanted to challenge myself in ways I had never been challenged as a vocalist — maybe to get a taste of my own medicine after the music I’d been writing for others,” recalls Soper.
The specific catalyst was a chance encounter at the Strand Bookstore with a book of poetry by Lydia Davis. Soper immediately started scribbling down the first of the three texts she would set in Only the Words, which originated at the end of her graduate work at Columbia University. “I loved this interplay in Lydia Davis between the physical and emotional responses we can’t control and the rational responses we use to try to combat them,” says Soper. “It’s about that moment when you try to argue yourself out of a feeling — how futile that is.”
Soper decided to round out the work with two more movements, creating something reminiscent of “a classical structure, with a meaty first movement followed by a slow movement and then a scherzo as the last movement.”
Working with flutist Erin Lesser, the work’s dedicatee, Soper experimented improvisationally both with the flute and with her own voice, pushing herself to registral extremes. “Lydia Davis’s words suggested an unhinged virtuosity and idiosyncratic, multi-layered musical reading that took me from screwball comedy to paired musical gymnastics,” writes Soper. “The flute becomes a kind of Iron Man suit for the voice, amplifying it to new planes of expressivity, intensity, and insanity as the two players struggle, with a single addled brain, to navigate the treacherous labyrinth of simple logic.”
The three movements are played without pause and call for C flute, bass flute, and piccolo. Soper’s score includes stage directions - “watch flutist with a look of consternation: gradually turn to audience” — and uses expressive parallels between the two musicians (the flutist’s circular breathing in the second movement, “Head, Heart,” in tandem with “extremely breathy” vocalism). While humor enters into the heartbreaking second movement, the third (“Getting To Know Your Body”) lightens the mood, playing with repetition.
Brett Dean: Notes from the twittersphere (2015)
Brett Dean (b. 1961) composed Notes from the twittersphere as a gift for fellow Brisbane-native Munro on the occasion of his departure from eighth blackbird in 2015.
Cast as a miniature — or a tiny collection of three miniatures — for solo piccolo, the piece was inspired by the songs Dean heard in the courtyard of his apartment in Berlin: “nothing too exotic: magpies, finches, starlings, etc.,” says the composer. “Being a surprisingly green city, Berlin has been described as an unlikely haven for birders and even twitchers out to spot rare birds. So, in writing three tiny pieces that started with birdsong, the title’s link to the strange world of short missives that we live in with Twitter was there to be had. And it’s of course a heartfelt thank you to Tim Munro and to eighth blackbird for their combined great musicianship and for all they do for new music and composers.”
Munro thinks of Notes as “three little bird portraits ... maybe hallucinatory birds” that also sound an “upbeat” to the largest and final work on the program, which similarly begins on piccolo.
Christopher Cerrone: Liminal Highway (2016)
Christopher Cerrone (b. 1984), winner of the 2015 Samuel Barber Rome Prize, has shown his remarkable versatility as a composer in works for small ensemble, electronics, large orchestra, and the opera stage, as well as scores for installations at such venues as the New Museum and the Time Warner Center. Invisible Cities, “an invisible opera for wireless headphones” based on a novel by Italo Calvino, made him a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize.
Liminal Highway for flute and four-channel electronics was co-commissioned by Miller Theatre and New Music USA. Cerrone says he had no interest in writing a simple solo flute piece “but wanted to create something completely new. And Tim Munro is so much more than a flutist.” Indeed, Liminal Highway’s immersive system of electronic sampling creates the sonic illusion of far more than a single soloist, even suggesting a variety of different environments.
The issue of resonance and how it relates to the process of memory is a central preoccupation in much of Cerrone’s music. Cerrone took the title for his new work from a poem by the Canadian indie rock musician John K. Samson, which begins with the premise “when you fall asleep in transit.” Each of the piece’s five movements is subtitled after a particular line in the poem.
Formally, Liminal Highway suggests an arch form: the fifth movement is a rethink of the first, the second and fourth are rapid and rhythm-centric, and the third is the most immersive, awash in reverb effects. Its sound world creates a kind of “counterpoint through resonance,” employing convolution reverbs — a process that uses sampling to recreate the effect of a real environment.
Written for flutter-tongue piccolo throughout, the first movement is made of delicate layers and loops. The percussive second movement, played with key clips while the mouthpiece is pointed into the microphone, amounts to a reconstruction of that archetypal flute gesture, the trill. In the third movement Cerrone alternates two kinds of reverbs to create a continually decaying sound. Against the high decaying note, Munro plays a simple chorale of multiphonics; the process is then reversed as the sound is reassembled into an explosive attack that transitions into the fourth movement — like the second, percussive and highly rhythmic with its key clicks. Not until this movement does Munro produce an “ordinary” sound, which is expanded into a chorus effect in the dramatic climax of the piece.
Liminal Highway concludes with a rewriting of the flutter-tongue piccolo from the first movement, but now mixed with what Cerrone calls “the haze of the long attack from the third movement.” Here Munro incorporates another sound source, blowing into a set of mounted beer bottles — the instrument again transformed.
Program Notes by Thomas May