Fear and Wonderment

“The genuinely new creates either fear or wonderment. These two sensations equally close to the stomach always accompany the presence of Prometheus.”

-       Julio Cortázar

Obscure quote located and submitted; because I can’t quite put my finger on why the subject of explorers and exploring is so captivating, which is the premise of Edge of the World, A Far Cry’s program this weekend.

It might be because exploration is an especially pure combination of the two things we do, besides rest: the input (learning and sensing) and the output (doing and creating). The explorer goes out (does) in order to learn, battling unforeseen obstacles for the payoff of knowledge, knowledge that will hopefully bring about some kind of further benefit. We all do this in small ways every day without realizing, but for “the explorer” it’s the raison d’être, and that purity is compelling. Their mission is both exotic in content and familiar in process.

It maybe shouldn’t have come as a surprise, then, that there’s a lot of music inspired by this premise, and also not surprising that a lot of that music is very, very good; that a composer inspired by physical frontiers might also be scouting some exciting creative ones, too.

John Corigliano’s Voyage is an arrangement for string orchestra of a choral setting of Charles Baudelaire’s “L’invitation au voyage,” using Charles Wilbur’s English translation.

What I like about this piece is its unconventional angle. The poem itself is rather loaded: beautiful on its surface, but with a complicated subtext. The speaker implores its audience-of-one to run away to the incredible place it describes, but hyperbole and other hints belie that the other party may be unwilling: 

Drowned suns that glimmer there
     Through cloud-disheveled air
Move me with such a mystery as appears
     Within those other skies
     Of your treacherous eyes
When I behold them shining through their tears.

Why are these eyes “treacherous,” and why are they in tears, and why does the speaker build such an overwhelming case?

Corigliano takes an intriguing step back from this dramatic tension, though, and, rather than pleading, beckons instead. The music seems to appear from the place itself, using archaic-sounding harmonies and textures to create an effect of one eavesdropping on a church choir in the quiet morning streets. It’s the soundtrack of the place, rather than the narrator’s voice.

In baseball, you hear talk of a pitcher’s stuff, the combination of factors that make their pitches virtuosic and challenging to hit. In my estimation, not until Beethoven was there a composer with stuff like Jean-Philippe Rameau: vivid harmony, catchy tunes, a sense of groove and rhythmic play, a flair for the dramatic, and a fearless, cutting edge.

Les Indes galantes contains some of his most iconic music, from which our suite takes a small sampling,

… from austere beauty…

… to deep groove…

It’s important to note the overt and problematic cultural appropriation of the originating opera. Even in our textless, instrumental suite, seeing the term “sauvages” refer to North American First Nations stirs up a dark and painful history. For its time, though, Les Indes galantes posited an open-minded point of view in which all of the cultures represented (Turkish, Incan, North African, and First Nations) are cast in a favorable light and contain the protagonists of their respective acts. The music, too, does not stoop to caricature, but is uniformly great, vivid, and imaginative, with the North American portions specifically inspired by the visit of two First Nations Chiefs to the French court and the dances performed by their entourages. It’s the resulting sparks of curiosity and creativity, harnessed by Rameau to depict cultures at the fringes of his known world, that has drawn us to this music.

Claude Vivier’s Zipangu gets back to the core of the quote at the top: “the genuinely new creates either fear or wonderment.” This piece accomplishes both, its intensity leaving the listener both elated and shaken.

“Zipangu” is the name for Japan used by Marco Polo in his famed travelogue. In it he describes stores of “gold in great abundance,” and a palace whose “chambers, of which there are many, are paved with fine gold to a depth of more than two fingers’ breadth.”

He goes on to describe an ill-fated campaign to Japan sent by “the Great Khan” (Kublai), which failed owing to the “great jealousy between the two commanders” and their unwillingness to cooperate. Details of the campaign and their gruesome punishments upon their return are described, alongside other details and stories of the island nation and its people.

The salient context for all of this is the fact that Marco Polo never traveled to Japan, but, rather, relays his accounts based on legend and hearsay. It’s that air of mystery that Vivier encapsulates in his piece, an island that “no trader, nor indeed anyone else, goes from the mainland,” and a land that beat back Kublai Khan’s armies.

One of the curious threads running through all three pieces from Edge of the World’s first half is the depiction of imagined places: Baudelaire’s invented city, countries never visited by Rameau, and an island that even the great traveler Marco Polo could not reach. Our time faces an opposite problem – a world that’s too known, too within reach – a state which might be cause for some degree of subconscious claustrophobic existential angst; until we get warp drive, we’re stuck in this box.

But it’s all in our heads.

Just because we can Street View the Taj Mahal, doesn’t mean we can come close to understanding what it means to be in its presence. It also doesn’t mean that our memory of it won’t fade or that the place itself will stay the same, so that it might feel entirely new returning years, months, weeks later. We owe it to ourselves to explore, even if it’s a local neighborhood, in fact, especially if it’s a local neighborhood. There’s fear in taking that leap, but there’s wonderment, too.

-Michael Unterman

A Far Cry performs Edge of the World on Friday, September 21 at 8pm at NEC’s Jordan Hall and Saturday, September 22 at 7:30pm at Wellesley College’s Jewett Arts Center.

For background on Edge of the World’s final work, the premiere of Mehmet Sanlikol’s A Gentleman of Istanbul, see the composer’s note. A Far Cry will also present an in depth look at Sanlikol’s piece, featuring the composer’s commentary, on Saturday, September 22 at 3pm at St. John’s Church, presented free to the public with the support from the Free for All Fund.