by Maggie Molloy
Photo by Dan Mastrian, Jr.
Immerse yourself in the music of water this Saturday at the next On Stage with KING FM concert hosted by Second Inversion! We’re thrilled to welcome to the stage the Ecco Chamber Ensemble in a special Earth Day program featuring music about, inspired by, or in some cases, made from water.
Comprised of soprano Stacey Mastrian, flutist Sarah Bassingthwaighte, and guitarist Mark Hilliard Wilson, the Ecco Chamber Ensemble is dedicated to exploring the intersection of art and social change. For this Saturday’s program, titled Water is Life, the group explores the vital role of water in both our survival and our art, provoking listeners to think critically about humanity’s impact on Earth.
The concert juxtaposes adventurous water works by the likes of John Cage and Alvin Lucier with the oceanic art songs of Gabriel Fauré, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Joaquín Rodrigo, José de Azpiazu, and John Corigliano. Also on the program is music of Toru Takemitsu, a composer who seamlessly blended the musical languages of East and West, exploring a “sea of tonality” in many of his works. Plus, the concert features new pieces penned by Ecco members Sarah Bassingthwaighte and guitarist Mark Hilliard Wilson.
Photo by Stacey Mastrian.
Some music on the program is even made from water itself. A world premiere by Stephen Lilly (written specifically for this event) features the ensemble performing alongside a block of melting ice, and audience members are invited to make their own music out of water for a piece composed by Cornelius Cardew.
Not only does the performance inspire audiences to listen to our environment, but it also urges us to take the next step: action. A portion of the proceeds from the concert, as well as audience donations, will go to the People for Puget Sound, a water advocacy group that has worked for the past 20 years on state, county, and municipal levels to create cleaner water for the native species and the humans in this area.
To learn more, we talked with the Ecco Chamber Ensemble about Earth, environmentalism, and the music of water.
Second Inversion: Water exists in many different forms. What are some of the nontraditional instruments or musical elements you are incorporating in this performance in order to capture its essence?
Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker.
Stacey Mastrian: To quote the character Stefon from Saturday Night Live, “This place has everything”: an egg slicer, a bucket of rocks, bird-warblers, dripping ice, guitar drumming, a plastic bag, an oatmeal container, a photosensitive digital water instrument, and triangles and a pot lid in a bucket of water.
We also have electronic manipulation of the voice and the incorporation of physical theater with related utterances (Cage’s Song Books), recordings of water from all over the region and the use of vases, bowls, etc. (Lucier’s Chambers), and water sounds created digitally via transforming the sound of orating politicians (Lucier’s Gentle Fire, realized by Stephen Lilly, based on an idea of mine).
Tom DeLio’s work that light for soprano playing percussion incorporates silences that aurally render the visual sparseness of poetry by Cid Corman, an American composer who lived in Japan. Additionally, the consonants in the work bring to life the onomatopoeic elements of the nature images therein.
Sarah Bassingthwaighte: My piece, H2O, uses primarily unusual sounds, with no traditional notation. Key clicks, tapping on the guitar, rubbing our hands together and slapping our hands against our legs are sounds we’re using to represent rain. We utilize the unvoiced syllable “p” to represent snow, egg slicer and dissonant harmonics to represent ice, crumpling paper and scraping the edge of a quarter along the string of the guitar to represent frost, bending notes to represent water droplets, and a soup pot with a whisk and spatula to create the sounds of a storm.
Mark Hilliard Wilson: My piece Wind and Water features an exploration of stillness and motion and internal drones on the guitar. In the end it is ultimately an exploration of my testing your patience with having two players play in two different time signatures, or heartbeats if you will. Too often it seems that we hold an opinion that we will not yield on only to find that there can be another perspective that fits equally in the measure, so to speak, but just at a different division.
SI: What makes water compelling to explore through music?
Stacey Mastrian: The sounds and images. Water is interwoven throughout every aspect of our life, from our physical makeup, to our tears of joy and sadness, to the multitudinous descriptions of nature that we emphasize in poetry and music.
Mark Hilliard Wilson: Water is so mysterious and yet so normal, so essential to every day. What I find so compelling about water is its mutability.
Photo by Sarah Bassingthwaighte.
SI: What do you hear when you listen to water? Has putting this program together made you hear water differently?
Sarah Bassingthwaighte: Something I’ve noticed since working on this program is the constant presence of water in our lives. I’m listening to the waves of Puget Sound lap against the shore as I type this, I notice the sounds of the creek in the woods as I walk my dog, water as I pour my tea or brush my teeth or wash the dishes. I appreciate the great need for water after I go for a run. I even had the experience this last week, while backcountry skiing for four days, that we were at an elevation higher than any of the rivers or streams and had to melt snow for water for all of our needs.
Stacey Mastrian: I am more closely aware of water now. I am paying attention to it in all of its states and “see” the white noise, the distinct variances in dripping, and the changes in pitches and rhythm. This project also likely made people look at me differently, since for a while I was going around recording every single type of water that I encountered!
It definitely has made us all learn more about what is going on with water in our region and around the world, feeling even more strongly about the need for changes on our planet. Since I saw the film Chasing Coral at SIFF last summer (it is on Netflix—watch it!), I started thinking about the water on Earth as an entity that is ill; particularly striking to me was this description: “A temperature increase of just 2 degrees Celsius may not seem like a lot in the air, but for marine life, this is like living with a constant fever.” How would we feel going around with a 102.2 degree fever at all times and without having a reprieve for the rest of forever?
Photo by Stacey Mastrian.
SI: This program features a mix of classical works and experimental works. How do these two general styles differ in their interpretations of water?
Sarah Bassingthwaighte: Offhand, it seems to me that the more traditional works refer to water in terms of story—that something happened next to the water’s edge or that the water provided a setting for the story. The more experimental works seem to focus more on the sensory aspects of water (color, sounds, temperature, textures) or on our interpretation of these senses (how water is calming or invigorating).
Stacey Mastrian: The more traditional works tend to be “about” water, and some of the more experimental works actually use water itself (or objects related to water) as sonic materials or to control some aspect of the work. This concert juxtaposes very new and more adventurous works with gorgeous art songs; with one exception (Fauré’s “Au bord de l’eau”) all of the works are from the 20th and 21st centuries.
Photo by Becca Bassingthwaighte.
SI: Many of the works on this program also feature aleatoric elements—how does this tie in with the concert’s broader themes of water, environmentalism, and social change?
Sarah Bassingthwaighte: A link between what we’re doing and social/environmental issues is that when we play much of this music, we are expected to improvise—that is, the music is affected by the choices we make and is not dictated to us. Likewise, how we respond to the issues concerning water will require explicit choices and actions that we make—if we want safe drinking water (such as in Haiti), we will have to work to keep the water clean or to decontaminate it. If we’re running out of water (such as in Cape Town) we’ll have to create ways to preserve it.
In our music, as in these issues surrounding water, we are asked to be resourceful and creative and to take action.
Stacey Mastrian: Composer Stephen F. Lilly, on his new composition, Melt III:
Humans have spent centuries trying to control water—fixing the paths of some rivers while creating new channels for others, harnessing the power of its currents, and even using it to farm arid land. In this piece that relationship is reversed. The melting block of ice controls the pacing of the instrumentalists, whose dynamic levels and expressive abilities are constrained so as to balance with the delicate sound of dripping. To further bring the role of water to the foreground, the piece begins and ends with the water dripping on an empty stage.
As the crystalline structure of the ice breaks down, drop by drop, so does the ensemble slowly deconstruct the harmonic series of their lowest note–the open E produced by the guitar’s sixth and lowest string. However, this process is viewed as if through a microscope by the slow pacing of the piece, controlled and coordinated by the dripping of ice-melt. Thus, we are much more likely to focus on each individual event as it occurs rather than hear any overall relationship or trend, much in the same way a significant portion of the population cannot see beyond the current weather in their own backyard to the alarming trend threatening their very existence.
Second Inversion presents the Ecco Chamber Ensemble in Water is Life this Saturday, April 21 at 7:30pm at Resonance at SOMA Towers in Bellevue. Click here for tickets.