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"Microfictions Vol. 3" Blends Sci-fi Concepts & Classical Music

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic with Roomful of Teeth performing world premiere of Caroline Shaw's "Microfictions, Vol. 3".Photo by Chris Lee

At the new David Geffen Hall—now aesthetically and acoustically enhanced—at Lincoln Center, on Sunday, October 23rd, I had the excellent fortune to attend a terrific matinee appearance of the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Jaap van Zweden.

The program reached its apotheosis with its first presentation , a sterling realization of Claude Debussy’s glorious Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, one of the greatest works in the history of music. The eminent vocal ensemble, Roomful of Teeth, then joined the musicians for a compelling performance of the US Premiere of Caroline Shaw’s impressive Microfictions, Vol. 3. About the composer, the note for the program states that: “In 2019 she was one of 19 women composers selected by the New York Philharmonic for Project 19, the commissioning initiative to commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women in the US the right to vote; Microfictions, Vol. 3 is the result.” It adds that Shaw

told the Dutch newspaper de Volksrant, “in my music I try to create a garden, a space where you feel, even for a moment, the breath of existence.” Much of Shaw’s work remains centered on vocal music and string ensembles.

It also explains that the work “is part of a series that Shaw began in 2021, inspired by the Twitter microfiction of T.R. Darling.”  Shaw’s own comment on the piece is as follows:

Microfictions, Vol. 3 is part of a series exploring my personal, intuitive connection between image and music. When designing a piece, I often begin by thinking of an object, place, person, or any non-musical thing and ask: if that thing were music, what would it sound like? (An orange. A tree. A cacophonous conversation.) That initial analogy rarely holds as a rigorous compositional system, but it does guide my intuition: imagining unusual juxtapositions; playing with triads as if they are blocks to be broken and tossed around; finger painting with harmony and texture with the kind of wonder and joy I felt about music as a child; pushing against my own inherited expectations of form.

I began this Microfictions series inspired by the work of T.R. Darling and other writers of micro science fiction (within a tweet’s 280 characters). For each movement, I would keep a log of different images or narratives that came to mind, allowing words and music to shape each other along the way. The resulting movement titles are my crafted distillations of those logs into something vivid, surreal, and playful — a space where the impossible colorfully coexists with the utterly familiar. Ultimately there is no right way to hear or understand this music, but I hope that these (very) short stories can simply be a delightful frame for the experience of creative listening and imagination.

The narrative titles of the work’s five sections are:

I. A filament of rust threaded through the pixelated chord structure of an old-growth forest.

II. Anton Webern steered his blue pickup into a field where grasses grew ten stories tall and the wind carried the weight of suggestion.

III. The ground beneath chattered relentlessly, its hard edge tempered only by elastic intonation and parenthetical umami.

IV. Suspended in iridescent fog, the chimes congealed to form a hyaline tsunami.

V. Clocks glided by each other through the diaphanous din of last year’s song of the summer. Time divided work and rest.

After an intermission, the program concluded marvelously with a rewarding account of Florence Price’s engaging Symphony No. 4. Program annotator Imani Danielle Mosley, Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Florida, had this to say about the background of the piece and its composer:

The inspiration for her Fourth Symphony is unclear; we do not know if it was written for a contest, like her First Symphony, or some other occasion. Archival materials do tell us that Price was eager to have the work heard. In 1942 she wrote to Artur Rodziński, then conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra (and later Music Director of the New York Philharmonic), asking him to “examine some of [my] orchestral work .... I also have a symphony (D minor) which has not yet been performed publicly.”

Rodziński did not look over the work, and Price’s Fourth Symphony remained unperformed in her lifetime. It was one of her compositions that were found in her former summer home outside of St. Anne, Illinois, in 2009, more than a half-century after she died. This led to its premiere in 2018 by the Fort Smith (Arkansas) Symphony, which subsequently released the only current recording of the work.

The elaborate opening movement—animated by the theme of the beautiful spiritual, “Wade in the Water”—like the piece as a whole, is within the mainstream of American compositional style of the era in which it was written and contains some jazzy inflections. The ensuing Andante cantabile has some of the work’s loveliest music, with melodies also recalling Negro spirituals. The populist strain of the symphony is most visible in the Allegro, based on the African-American dance-form, the Juba, while the finale is the score’s most exuberant movement. An enthusiastic ovation elicited a fabulous encore: Antonín Dvořák’s delightful Slavonic Dance in G minor, Op. 46, No. 8.

I look forward to the remainder of the season.

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