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Posts tagged 'Chicago Opera Theater'

Listening to Social (and Musical) Distance with Wang Lu

As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to make live concerts with large audiences impossible, musicians and composers are faced with a unique opportunity to think carefully about the sociality of composition, performance, and listening: since sound can travel through physical space (and digital space), what can music mean, or do, in a time of social distance?

Wang Lu is a composer whose work has explored ideas of the distances of time, memory, and place—often evoking, recreating, altering, manifesting places and times from her own distant memories. The titular work on her recently-released album, An Atlas of Time, maps and remembers sound and space from her own past: the opening melody of a children’s television broadcast is reincarnated in the strangeness of the present; fragments of the ambitiously trans-historical "Internationale" struggle among instruments responding to its insistent reemergence. In this sense, Wang’s pre-COVID music was already exploring ideas of “social distance”: a kind of musical sociality between people that connects them through time and space. 

During the COVID era, Wang has had the opportunity to stage this kind of “distant musical sociality” through a residency as a Vanguard Young Composer in Residence at Chicago Opera Theater: a paradoxical residency that is at once physically present yet also largely virtual. The experience of working with music and theater is new to Wang, who says that it has changed the way she thinks about her role as the composer: not only is she working with performers and conductors, but now also a director and a dramaturg, all of whom increase the complexity of composing in musical time. Wang reflects: “Now I have to think about dramatic action, movement, breathing, how much time and space a person needs to express themselves… and to translate that into Sibelius, with its insistent metronome—it’s hard to translate time!”  

One example of how Wang is navigating this new dynamic is a series of four art songs she has composed for the singers of the Chicago Opera Theater—who, she reports, have been living in a “pod” and quarantining before rehearsals in order to continue their craft. In “The Everlasting Voices”, sung by bass-baritone Keanon Kyles, Wang translates the senses of time, distance, and memory she has developed in her works for chamber ensembles into a composition for a single voice—from extremely dense polyphony to the simple, modal writing of an a capella voce.  

Wang also brought this sense of a personal unfolding of time to her new work Like Clockwork, which was commissioned and premiered by the Seattle Modern Orchestra—entirely remotely. For this work, written with Beethoven’s 250th birthyear in mind, Wang created a score that includes guided improvisation, asking five performers to record themselves at home, listening to recordings of each other as they improvise, remembering what role Beethoven’s music played in their own musical development. “Some repertoire might be right on your fingertips, memories in your hands from training… each gesture moves through the next like a clock—it’s what retains a sense of time, clock and calendar.” In Like Clockwork, Wang meditates on her own memories: “like walking through an old conservatory building in china, where all of the practice rooms leak sound”, creating a spatial memory. 

In June 2021, Wang is scheduled to premiere a new work for The Crossing: a socially-distanced, outdoor performance for 24 singers, each equipped with their own personal microphone and speaker, allowing them to stand in a 170-foot-diameter circle. A concentric circle inside will contain loudspeakers, and inside that circle, pods of audience members will listen in the round. Wang says that this work, which will set poems from Forrest Gander’s 2018 Be With, will continue to explore topics of distance, connection, and mourning. “Intricate rhythm of response isn’t possible with physical distance. But like ‘mountain songs’ sung by distant lovers across valleys, with communication across physical distance, it makes private relationships become uniquely public.” 


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