March 3, 2013

The Tragic Arachnid in Space

Print More

C.U. Winds’ performance last Friday was billed as “Music of Transcendence”— but it was also about spiders. This arachnid event was called Cosmosis: Spider Music in Space. Conceived by the Manhattan School of Music’s Susan Botti, Cosmosis was an  operatic epic that chronicled the struggles of a spider weaving a web in space. C.U. Winds was the main group behind the  piece, but hardly the only one — it was joined by the Cornell Chorus, Cornell Chorale, Prof. Linda Rayor, Entomology, and Botti herself. It was a truly tremendous moment that exposed music’s potential to transcend a simple arrangement of notes and become something more.“Cosmosis,” of course, wasn’t the only work  performed on Friday night, or else the concert would also have been tremendously short. Wind symphony piece “Danza de los Duendes” by Nancy Galbraith started off as a sprightly beginning to the program, with woodwinds that pulsed and jumped as the brass blastsed and boomed in the background. The title refers to malicious goblin-like “los Duendes” in South American folklore that terrorize children, and was actually an afterthought suggested by Galbraith’s student, but it fits the piece: Piccolos and flutes frantically run off like children, as trumpets horns and saxophones menacingly chase after them, ending in a dramatic crash.“Amazing Grace” was a perplexing and jarring  piece to follow the modern “Danza de los Duendes,” but perhaps it was a necessary transition to Howard Hanson’s “Chorale and Alleluia,” which, as suggested, involved Cornell Chorale, a 100 person group that performs mostly Western sacred music. The chorale started timidly, but as bits and pieces of the alleluia theme appeared, the symphony played its heart out in the climax.The last song that the symphony played before the ensemble took the stage was Ola Gjeilo’s “Meridian.” During this piece the group was joined by the chorus and its director, John Rowehl, on the piano. Although the song was mainly driven by the piano’s dance-like yet anthemic chords, it never overwhelmed the other instruments — the piano always sounded like it was on the verge of something monumental. As the piano softened to silence and the clarinets and oboes picked up the pace, the whole symphony exploded into a heavenly chorus. “Unflinching line,” the chorale crooned as a soft snare drum plinked  in the background. “You grow me wings, you take the burden off my shoulders.” The song wouldn’t feel out of place in one of the motivational montages you see at Olympic closing ceremonies. After a short intermission, the wind ensemble and chorus began with David Maslanka’s “Traveler.” It started off breathtakingly tragic, as if mourning, anxious and desperate thoughts made real with piccolos and contemplative, yet hurrying, piano chords. Then, suddenly, they crashed into silence. The piano, still tragic and fluttery, entered with a clarinet to mimic a delayed reverb that struggled to perpetuate itself. But then the rest of the ensemble joined, and “Traveler” slowly ended as lullaby, content and pensive. There was one disappointing moment in the piece though: A screen situated above the symphony providing musical commentary gave away the crash a full minute before it actually happened, ruining the surprise. The clear highlight was “Cosmosis,” which began with Raynor’s mini lecture on how spiders rely on gravity to weave webs. Never before have I been as fascinated with something I thought was a serious household problem. The audience’s newfound appreciation made “Cosmosis” all the more menacing and jarring. If the web is an extension of the spider’s sensory range and its state of mind, then a spider floating in space literally loses its grounding, rivalling the best disorientation in Kafka’s works.The first section of “Cosmosis” was actually a rendition of May Swenson’s shape poem, “Overboard,” which was performed by the chorus without Botti. Instead, Botti emerged from the stage during the piece, sat down, eyes closed, serenely absorbing the demented chorus hissing lines that gradually unraveled against a wall of tribal beats, claps, and screams: “what throws drags, what drags you throws, what throws is what drags you.” Then Botti rose and narrated “The First Night” of the spider’s futile efforts to weave the web and understand its new environment. Using a very impressive vocal range, she flipped her voice in a bipolarity between joy at small successes (catching a fly) and utter despair at its failures (turns out the catch was actually a “Fly of Thought”). The chorus used its claps and descending vocals to cut down every hope Botti expressed to great effect, while the Ensemble provided heavy emphasis — a pointed comical two-note brass interruption, for example, when it turned out the spider failed to capture prey. And while it is Botti and the Chorus who created the discord, it is the Ensemble’s industrial ambience that contextualized it as groundless — I was surprised that classical instruments could make those sounds, and even more so to hear a classically trained chorus scream.  At the end of “The Second Night,” the spider crumples and dies, but that didn’t stop the end from being as jarring and cringing as possible: the ensemble stopped playing, Botti sat down in her serene posture, but the chorus continued clicking, whistling, hushing, screaming and buzzing like a fly that loiters over the spider’s corpse. And just as abruptly as it started, the noise stopped, the lights died and we were plunged yet again into the abyssal void we started with.

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng