Frog's Eye [CD]


Frog's Eye
by Evan Ziporyn
October 2006, Cantaloupe Records

1. Frog's Eye Listen(mp3, excerpt)
2. The Ornate Zither and the Nomad Flute  
3. War Chant  
4. Drill Listen(mp3, excerpt)

Performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
Produced by Joel Gordon and Evan Ziporyn.
Recorded by Joel Gordon at Jordan Hall, Boston, 2004-2006.

Liner Notes

These four stand-alone pieces, composed for different occasions and different ensembles, are an inadvertent symphony. Before this recording, I thought of their connection as simply chronological, i.e., a record of what's been on my mind for the past five years. Two are for orchestra and two are for wind ensemble; two involve soloists, one involves text. All were conceived for live performance, and yet the diversity of forces (electric piano in one piece; Hawaiian guitar in another) would make a complete, continuous performance unwieldy both logistically and financially. All have programmatic underpinnings and references of diverse and diffuse phylum. They aren't meant to go together. Yet as this disc took shape, Gil Rose's formidable Boston Modern Orchestra Project and NEC's perfect Jordan Hall unearthed a continuity of sound and feel, and then something more emerged: an emotional narrative of sorts, a clear four-movement topography. Life-affirming opener, meditation on death, a scherzo (dialectical and schizoid, though not in triple meter), and a final romp to the finish line. The four pieces take on an inevitable ordering: my Symphony #0, just in time for the end of the CD era.

Reports of the orchestra's death are exaggerated, but for many years it was effectively dead to me. At best we were barely on speaking terms, after a long, intense relationship. I spent my childhood in the standard school and youth orchestras, and in fact wrote my first orchestra piece as an overly ambitious 14-year-old. We'll say no more about that one, but over the next twelve years, the orchestra was a regular part of my compositional palette. In the late 1980s I hit a wall. Weight of tradition, anxiety of influence, last burning embers of modernism, whatever - I felt compelled to make a choice: tow the line or burn down the concert hall. I didn't want to do either. So I built my own musical house, avoiding standard instrumental combinations, gathering materials from a musical path that included Bali, the overtones of the clarinet, and the hybrid electroacoustica of the Bang on a Can All-stars. A "large ensemble" to me was a gamelan augmented by electric guitars, or a cello overdubbed a dozen times. A ramshackle abode, to be sure, but my own. I still live there, and don't plan to leave. As for the "wind ensemble," some things need to be said. I started clarinet at age 8, and set my horizons on first chair in the Evanston All-city Concert Band. By high school it was the ETHS Symphonic Band, subsidized by the PE department in order to ensure a healthy marching band for Wildkat football games. As for "wind ensembles," I only knew of two: the Nederlands Blazers (I had a recording of them playing Stravinsky) and the legendary Eastman Wind Ensemble, which I was subsequently kicked out of (after one rehearsal, for apparently bureaucratic reasons) in 1977. The point being: the concert band (as I continue to think of it) is the focal point of every school-trained American wind player; upon graduation it generally disappears off the radar screen. It is huge among its practitioners and largely invisible to everyone else. It has a sound and, more importantly, a psychic ethos. It's what one quits when the garage band beckons. But it stays in the DNA. That's the deep background.

In 2001, it was time to visit home, to re-engage with these "conventional forces," even if it meant writing music that wouldn’t fit on my computer screen. Music is social, and the orchestra concert is a gathering point, a kind of village commons. It's place to say what one has to say, clearly and directly. Composers have access to the soapbox, and that made the task straightforward: find the common ground. The various Boston-based ensembles who commissioned these pieces locate themselves outside the standard new music ghetto, yet hardly luxuriate in the high rent district: all have committed themselves in one form or another to a particular patch of real estate that involves championing new work while reaching out to larger audiences. This is true not just of BMOP but of the groups which premiered three of the four pieces on this CD, musician-driven, independent Pro Arte Orchestra and Fred Harris' remarkable, innovative MIT Wind Ensemble. I owe a debt of gratitude to these three groups, who collectively gave me the opportunity to speak in my own voice while still allowing the musicians to do what they do best.

Frog's Eye (2002) - Orchestra

"I'm quite convinced in some ways that the camera has given us a somewhat blinkered look. We're looking at the world through a hole - we're getting a bit of tunnel vision. And so I'm trying to widen it, trying to put in more than just looking ahead. And when you do, the viewer is pulled in more. So I get quite excited by that. I spent rather a long time experimenting with optics, and actually now my intention is to throw them away and use my two eyes and what I think of the world and look at it, look at the real world. I don't watch television much, I look at the garden, that's the real world I think, so that's what I'm going to do." -David Hockney on NPR's Weekend Edition, December 9, 2001

This piece was, in fact, inspired by a particular frog, in a particular pond (too much of a clich? to actually name, but I'm not the first to find inspiration there) on a particularly hot day. As a non-native New Englander, I still allow myself the luxury of being overwhelmed by local nature, specifically summer's rampant fecundity. Swimming across lakes and ponds, the view is as with a camera obscura, one's small humanity dwarfed by water and sky, ringed by innumerable trees and leaves. It's hard to feel important at such moments, but also impossible not to feel wondrously alive. As it turns out, this is close to the frog's-eye view: perched on a rock in shallow water, 99 percent immersed, only its huge panoptic eyes above the water line. Perfect stillness, perfect contemplation, patience, serenity, all that good Zen stuff. Keeping cool while maintaining absolute vigilance. He was in fact hard at work, staring intently, waiting for a moment of action and violence, for insects, for food. The view was incidental as far as he was concerned. Meanwhile, back among the humans, we live our directed lives, cutting across the sensory present, intersecting with it, ignoring it, misapprehending, misinterpreting. This is undoubtedly our own biological necessity. We strive for a certain type of awareness, for multilayered perception, and occasionally we get there, but we seem to be built for subjective narrative. We've got to catch the fly to survive. I personally don't have a problem with this, but - like Mr. Hockney - I'm trying to look at my surroundings while still advancing the story line.

The Ornate Zither and the Nomad Flute (2005) - Soprano Voice, Wind Ensemble, Electric Piano

"The Ornate Zither," by the Tang Dynasty poet Li Shangyin (813-858), was brought to my attention by my brother Brook Ziporyn, a classical Chinese scholar. Like much poetry of the period, its literal translation is extremely abstract (one line would read "Blue field sun warm jade birth smoke"), but Brook's translation reveals a meditation on mind, memory, and death worthy of Heidegger. His translation is as follows:

This ornate zither with its senseless fifty strings;
Each string, each fret thinking back through a year of blossoms.
Zhuangzi awakes from his dream, confusing the butterfly.
The spring-heart of Emperor Wang is entrusted to the cuckoo.
Azure sea, moon's brightness--tears from pearl.
Blue fields, the sun's warmth--smoke from jade.
This sensation could perhaps wait to become a memory;
It's just that even at the time, it was already complete confusion.

Soprano Anne Harley is fluent in Mandarin, and my original plan was to set this single text, strictly deriving the melody from the contours of spoken Chinese. I adhered to this, but at a certain point the distant feel of the poetry, the very thing that had intrigued me, started to give me chills. I found myself thinking about a short W.S. Merwin poem I had read on the New York subway years ago, something to do with a pear. I wished that he had written a poem that would somehow complement the Li - preferably dealing with loss, and, as long as I was asking, with a musical reference in the title. And then, true story, the New Yorker arrived in the mail, with my wish enclosed, a new Merwin poem, "The Nomad Flute." Again, an inadvertent but retrospectively inevitable relationship appears: the two poets seem to be speaking to each other, addressing the same concerns, across the centuries.

"The Nomad Flute" by W.S. Merwin (b. 1927)

You that sang to me once sing to me now
let me hear your long lifted note
survive with me
the star is fading
I can think farther than that but I forget
do you hear me
do you still hear me
does your air
remember you
oh breath of morning
night song morning song
I have with me
all that I do not know
I have lost none of it
but I know better now
than to ask you
where you learned that music
where any of it came from
once there were lions in China
I will listen until the flute stops
and the light is old again

War Chant (2004) - Orchestra

This one has a split personality, and while "schizo" has no etymological connection to "scherzo," there is a serious joke at the root of it, an absurd but deliberate juxtaposition to be explored. My two idols of orchestration are Iannis Xenakis and Juan Garcia Esquivel, in every way about as far apart musically as it's possible to be. I had a crazy dream of trying to write music that forged a connection, paying homage to both without compromise or irony. Like contrasting themes in a classical symphony, these two very different ways of making music are presented in clear distinction, finding synthesis over the course of the piece. A dialectic of style, though one assumes Adorno would not approve. The piece has a programmatic agenda as well. BMOP commissioned this piece in late 2003 and premiered it in the spring of 2004. This was before we had all gotten used to the state of things, i.e., we were all still freaked out about living in an age of war. The airport was the new battlefield and the jumbo jet the weapon of choice, so we were told, and so we continue to believe. This resonates because it is nothing new: the fear of death has always been a traveling companion. The screams of the machinery soothe us, and nothing is more terrifying than the wrong type of metallic scrape, knock, or, worst of all, silence.

Around the same time, flying from Boston to New York, I discovered that US Airways was force-feeding its passengers the Fox News Network, no choice, no headphones, just broadcasting continually over the course of the short flight. It felt like the drums of war, in coach class on the new frontline. I broke FAA regulations and recorded my next trip on mini disc, capturing a symphony of mechanical accelerations, punctuated by the gentle beeps of the seatbelt sign and the reassurances and warnings of the flight attendant. The engine's primal howl is subsumed by soothing corporate lyricism, and we probably wouldn't be able to have it any other way. So there's that dialectic too, in metaphoric relationship to the forementioned clash of styles. You can decide for yourself what symbolizes what. To me, Xenakis speaks only the raw truth, like it or not: the stochasticism of atmosphere and machinery. Esquivel, meanwhile, is the master of pleasure and fantasy. We need them both to keep our psyches intact. This may also be why we're so susceptible to manipulation: the soothing strains of the Hawaiian guitar help us cope with the ominous microtones in the strings, the chaos that lurks on either side of the fuselage. C'est la guerre.

Drill (2002) - Solo Bass Clarinet and Wind Ensemble

The concerto form springs from romanticism: its default metaphor is that of the heroic individual, emerging from and exalted by his fellow man. This is not really my thing, but I do have a strong desire to make music with my wind brethren, to do things on our instruments together. Like Ornate Zither, Drill was written for Fred Harris and the MIT Wind Ensemble. Having taught for many years, I am also conscious of the complex ways in which teachers and students relate, and this piece reflects this, at least in my mind. In war movies and sitcoms, it's always struck me that the drill sergeant works at least as hard as the recruits, running alongside, exhorting and cajoling to be sure, but never really asking them to do things he himself couldn't or wouldn't do. So as soloist I rally the troops, and in this case things seem to have a happy ending.

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