Soundings and silences: A JFK tribute in Dallas

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Evan Mitchell writes for Bachtrack:

This weekend, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination, barely a mile from the present-day Arts District, of US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Their program included Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, an obvious choice, as well as the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Just across Flora Street in City Performance Hall, however, a very different memorial concert unfolded Saturday evening. Soundings, the series that presents biannual concerts at the Nasher Sculpture Center, put on a program of words and music in which silence spoke volumes.

After the four musicians who were to perform Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”) took their seats on stage, a recording was played of Jorge Luis Borges’ poem In Memoriam, J.F.K., an indirect eulogy that recounts a host of assassinations throughout history. As the Messiaen unfolded, we heard interspersed between its movements: wordless sounds recorded at JFK’s funeral; clips from several of the President’s speeches; and his brother Robert F. Kennedy speaking after the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Robert, too, would be felled by an assassin’s bullet within months of his speaking those words). In addition to setting the atmosphere, this device had the practical effect of breaking up the nearly hour-long Messiaen quartet, which even its enthusiasts would likely concede is not easy listening.

The Messiaen did indeed seem to defy time. More fluid passages seemed to float, and slow movements – Messiaen gives the description “inexorably slow” for Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus(“Praise to the Eternity of Jesus”) – were trancelike. Mr Neidich’s complete technical and emotional command in Abîme des oiseaux (“Abyss of the Birds”) was so transcendent that even such virtuosity couldn’t remind me I was merely at a concert on a Saturday night. His performance was matched in intensity and subtlety by that of his colleagues – violinist Mark Steinberg and cellist Nina Lee of the Brentano String Quartet, and Seth Knopp, pianist and Artistic Director of Soundings.

Intermission cleared the air before the emotional center of the concert, which by design did not feature the playing of a single note. The recording of newsman Walter Cronkite announcing on air JFK’s death was followed by several short clips in which others shared their personal recollections of that day. All the while, the Brentanos sat in pairs to either side of the hall, with four empty chairs on stage. The first half having circumscribed the assassination, this emptiness for the first time illustrated the void of death. After the recordings were finished, the quartet performed John Cage’s 4’33”, a piece notorious for consisting solely of silence. A minute or two apart, the musicians walked slowly, one by one, onto the stage. The power of silence, of the ritualized nothingness Cage envisioned, was strong.

Performed in a typical concert, 4’33” is more likely to raise questions than to hint at their answers, but in the context of a memorial it became an exercise in collective grieving. Cronkite’s words, bullet-like, pierced the already elegiac atmosphere, and the silence that followed was almost unbearable. The silence of 4’33” became the void we have all felt in expecting to hear the voice of a loved one, and realizing this voice – the impression made on the world by that person in sound, their music – is gone. This performance of 4’33” went beyond the token respectfulness of a moment of silence; its quiet minutes perfectly simulated that moment when what has been lost becomes palpable.

One final recording of JFK’s voice broke the silence, and his words were followed by the Brentano Quartet playing Steven Mackey’s One Red Rose, a new work jointly commissioned by Carnegie Hall, Yellow Barn (the summer festival curated by Mr Knopp), and the Nasher Sculpture Center. In a program note, Mackey described his feelings of admiration at that time for the newly widowed Jackie Kennedy. He sought to convey in this work a sense of the dialogue between opposites – personal and public, and chaos and control. This manifests itself in several ways: the uncertain, shape-shifting ostinatos of the first movement, “Five Short Studies”; the threat of structure dissolving into chaos in “Fugue and Fantasy”, the second movement; and the third movement, titled “Anthem and Aria” – Mackey’s respective terms for the public stoicism masking Jackie’s inner song of mourning. One Red Rose ends with a transcendence of sorts, an ascending and increasingly consonant effusion by the violins, whose Coplandesque sonorities blaze over an open-fifth drone in the lower strings.

Selections from this concert were performed the next day in an event at the Sixth Floor Museum, the room from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired his three shots. As haunting as the Cage and indeed the entire experience had been in City Performance Hall, I can only imagine the effect it had in this far eerier setting.

Read this article online

The Dallas Morning News on "One Red Rose"

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Michael Granberry writes for The Dallas Morning News:

The Nasher Sculpture Center has long prided itself on offering more than an internationally famous sculpture collection.

The museum has chosen to embrace music as its way of honoring President John F. Kennedy. The 50th anniversary of his assassination is Friday.

The Nasher’s observance of the darkest day in Dallas history will manifest itself in a special Soundings concert at Dallas City Performance Hall and The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.

The City Performance Hall concert is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, followed by a 2 p.m. show at the Sixth Floor on Sunday. The centerpiece of the show is a new work by American composer Steven Mackey titled One Red Rose. It was commissioned by the Nasher in conjunction with Carnegie Hall and the Putney, Vt.-based Yellow Barn. Mackey wrote One Red Rose for the Brentano String Quartet in commemoration of the anniversary.

The quartet will take the stage with clarinetist Charles Neidich and pianist Seth Knopp, who also serves as artistic director of the Nasher Soundings program. Other works being performed include pieces by Olivier Messiaen and John Cage.

Knopp, who conceived the idea, is a busy man. I reached him in Vermont, where he’s artistic director of Yellow Barn, an international center for chamber music. With the Nasher show, Knopp hopes to create an evening that touches “people who have the misfortune of being where bad things happen, who live through events that tragically change the course of society itself.”

He hopes “the music becomes both a refuge and a way of using history whether it’s fortunate or unfortunate … to move on, to move beyond.”

Read the full article

Find out more about Yellow Barn's program to honor President Kennedy

Related links for Yellow Barn's JFK program

Monday, November 11, 2013

Yellow Barn Artistic Director Seth Knopp has developed a program to commemorate President Kennedy that brings together words and music, softening the line between what is said and heard, to bring new meaning to the shared experience of Kennedy's death 50 years ago this November. The program includes historic moments delivered by JFK, RFK, and Walter Cronkite, a poem by Borges read by Theodore Bikel, and a collection of personal histories from Dallas and from Yellow Barn's community in Putney, VT.

Following the Dallas performance at City Performance Hall on November 23rd, Yellow Barn will perform part of the program and present the complete oral histories along with the score to Steven Mackey's new string quartet One Red Rose (commissioned by Yellow Barn, the Nasher Sculpture Center, and Carnegie Hall) to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza for their archives.

In collaboration with the Sixth Floor Museum, Yellow Barn will present excerpts from the following speeches:

President John F. Kennedy’s commencement address at American University, June 10, 1963

President Kennedy’s report to the American people on civil rights, June 11, 1963

President Kennedy’s inaugural address, January 20, 1961

Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s statement on the death of Rev. Martin Luther King, April 4, 1968

President Kennedy’s remarks at Amherst College, October 26, 1963

Learn more about this residency program and performances this month in Putney and Dallas

In Memoriam, J.F.K.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Yellow Barn's program to commemorate President Kennedy's death incorporates speeches, personal accounts, and the following poem by Jorge Borges. We are grateful to Theodore Bikel for his beautiful recording, which will be performed at the start of each performance this November.

Find out more about Yellow Barn's JFK residency and performances

This bullet is an old one.

In 1897, it was fired at the president of Uruguay by a young man from Montevideo, Avelino Arredondo, who had spent long weeks without seeing anyone so that the world might know that he acted alone. Thirty years earlier, Lincoln had been murdered by that same ball, by the criminal or magical hand of an actor transformed by the words of Shakespeare into Marcus Brutus, Caesar’s murderer. In the mid-seventeenth century, vengeance had employed it for the assassination of Sweden’s Gustavus Adolphus in the midst of the public hecatomb of battle.

In earlier times, the bullet had been other things, because Pythagorean metempsychosis is not reserved for humankind alone. It was the silken cord given to viziers in the East, the rifles and bayonets that cut down the defenders of the Alamo, the triangular blade that slit a queen’s throat, the wood of the Cross and the dark nails that pierced the flesh of the Redeemer, the poison kept by the Carthaginian chief in an iron ring on his finger, the serene goblet that Socarates drank down one evening.

In the dawn of time it was the stone that Cain hurled at Abel, and in the future it shall be many things that we cannot even imagine today, but that will be able to put an end to men and their wondrous, fragile life.

— Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) In Memoriam, J.F.K. (1965)

About The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book

Monday, October 28, 2013

Merima offers the following words as an introduction to her new work:

I am fascinated by the Sarajevo Haggadah not only because of its amazing and fascinating history, but also because it reminds me of my own life and the "Exodus" I had to experience. I was forced to leave my own country, under the strangest and heaviest circumstances.

The Haggadah in its journey suffered transformations which make it even more special by giving it a richer history that reflects its passage through different cultures.

I also travel around the world and with every journey I get a new "scar", positive or negative, but I keep my dignity and get richer by travelling through different circumstances, and sharing culture with others through my music.

My composition The Sarajevo Haggadah: Music of the Book is based on the Sephardic traditions of different countries that the Haggadah visited on its travel through history. Sephardic Jews observed the traditions of their home countries, and infused Jewish culture into the music of their adopted lands. This resulted in musical similarities. For example, Bosnians and Sephardic Jews use the same scales and rhythms. They share the same emotion in their songs, the same pleasures, and the same pain. In the end they share the same country, the same customs, and the same food. They learn from each other. And an interesting note: many Sephardic songs from Bosnia are about celebrating Passover.

I have learned most of these songs from my dear friend Flory Jagoda, the Bosnian expert in the field of Sephardic music. Flory is a Sephardic Jew who left Bosnia during the Second World War and is now living in Washington D.C. We understand each other on many levels as we share a very similar destiny, with a difference of just a few decades.

One of the important aspects of the Sarajevo Haggadah is its illustrations. In her historical novel The People of the Book, author Geraldine Brooks relates the story that the Haggadah was beautifully illustrated in order for a Deaf child to follow and understand it.

Next to the musical journey of the Haggadah, video artist Bart Woodstrup created a visual backdrop to the music that subtly interweaves the imagery of the Sarajevo Haggadah with elements of the book's history. Inspired by the textures found in the illustrations, as well as the stains and signs of aging found in the book, Bart literally "illuminates" and animates those elements with a variety of digital software techniques. His animations are almost entirely be composed of imagery from the book, yet arranged in an abstract way that blend with the musical composition to make a unified audio-visual experience.  

Learn more about the Sarajevo Haggadah residency and the March 2014 premiere in Putney, VT

Happy Birthday to the Nasher Sculpture Center

Friday, October 18, 2013

For ten years our friends at the Nasher Sculpture Center have been doing work that enriches lives and fires the imagination. Exploring the Nasher, one is as likely to see the rapt attention of a group of school children as one is to share one of its rooms with the solitary admirer, but the community it serves is not limited by the walls of its galleries or its garden. The Nasher offers new ways of seeing the familiar and a context for discovering the unknown that has a lasting effect on how art makes us feel.

In the Nasher Sculpture Center and its Soundings concert series, Yellow Barn has found a kindred spirit with whom it can collaborate. We treasure our work together and wish you a happy 10th birthday!

The following program took place at the Nasher on April 26, 2013. The first set, "the rain is a handsome animal" was compiled and performed by Tin Hat (Carla Kihlstedt, violin and voice; Mark Orton, guitar and dobro; Ben Goldberg, clarinets; Rob Reich, accordion and piano), and is based on poems by E.E. Cummings. On the second half of the program pianist Gilbert Kalish performed Charles Ives's "Concord" sonata (with Conor Nelson, flute).

Read the texts for "the rain is a handsome animal"