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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

SoundBox curator MISSY MAZZOLI offers these comments on
Modern Sanctuary:


Tonight’s concert is a series of musical rituals for our modern age. The featured composers have created sacred sonic spaces, often inventing their own musical styles of prayer, meditation and communion.

We move from darkness into light over the course of the evening, beginning with the vulnerable breathiness of Marcos Balter’s solo work Ut (2005) and the haunted words of Oakland-based poet Matthew Zapruder in an excerpt from Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for a New Dark Age (2015).

We taste the strange ecstasy of Meredith Monk’s Passage and What Does It Mean? (2006) and the luminous, synth-drenched world of Mario Diaz De Leon’s Sacrament (2019) and Sanctuary (2017), before finally moving to shimmering, enveloping works by John Luther Adams and Arvo Pärt.

Guiding us on our journey is musical shaman Lorna Dune, who not only presents ambient selections and ambisonic nature samples that swim through the 85-speaker Meyer Constellation System during intermissions, but also premieres her imaginative remixes of other works on the program.


—ACT I—


MARCOS BALTER: Ut (2005)
Composer Marcos Balter (b.1974) is at once emotionally visceral and intellectually complex, primarily rooted in experimental manipulations of timbre and hyper-dramatization of live performance. Ut for sola viola revels in an enrapturing almost-not-thereness that leaves listeners on the edge of breathlessness.

Mario Diaz De Leon: Sanctuary (2017)
New York-based composer and multi-instrumentalist Mario Diaz de Leon’s (b.1979) work encompasses modern classical music, experimental electronic music, extreme metal, and creative improvised music. Sanctuary is a quietly radiant diatonic (only using the notes of the scale without alteration) vocalise (a vocal melody without words) with synthesizer accompaniment.

MISSY MAZZOLI: A New Dark Age, from Vespers for a New Dark Age (2015)
SoundBox curator and Grammy-nominated composer Missy Mazzoli (b.1980, “Brooklyn’s post-millennial Mozart,” Time Out New York) describes her album Vesper for a New Dark Age as a “distorted, wild, blasphemous take” on an ancient musical and religious tradition, the evening Vesper prayer service observed in many Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches. She replaces the customary sacred text with poems by Oakland-based poet Matthew Zapruder. “This album contains some of my most personal sonic expressions, but also asks big questions,” she says. “What haunts us in this ‘new dark age?’ What role does ritual play in our lives? Is there room for the supernatural in an increasingly technological world?” Vespers for a New Dark Age inhabits the sometimes disturbing intersection between technology and humanity, questioning our connections to technology, death, and God. Vestiges of old school vespers remain. Soprano Marnie Breckenridge’s voice soars, reaching upward as if beckoning for divine intervention, while the ensemble—including Mazzoli and close collaborator Lorna Dune on synth—exercise an ominous and fascinating timbre.
 

MEREDITH MONK (ARR. MISSY MAZZOLI): Passage/What Does It Mean? (2006)
Excerpted from Vulture: “In Meredith Monk’s original What Does It Mean? from her 1970 album Key, she bangs out obsessively basic keyboard patterns and vocalizes, alternating between chipmunk squeals and guttural rasps. The luminous neo-medieval Passage, from the 2006 work Impermanence, is as glossy and seamless as the earlier piece is muscular and rough, but they share a lot of DNA. They both strip music down to an agile descant over a ground bass, intimate meanings encrypted in stray syllables, and conjure up a vivid physical space—a vaulted crypt, say, that coats the voice in reverberant shellac. Missy Mazzoli finds the common spirit in those two disparate pieces, translating a kaleidoscope of vocal hues into an instrumental watercolor. Monk has said that she realized in the mid-1960s that the voice could be an instrument, containing sonic multitudes. It took her another few decades to treat instruments like voices. Mazzoli, who handles both with flair and sensitivity, finds a way to express Monk’s discoveries of these long-standing truths.”
 

—ACT II—
 

Mario Diaz De Leon: Sacrament (2017)
Mario Diaz De Leon’s Sacrament colorfully embraces hypnotic repetition alongside dynamic contrasts, embodying the electrifying post-Minimalism that Diaz de Leon is known for. Sacrament features the composer’s shimmering, bass-heavy electronic production. This energetic and virtuosic piece makes use of rapid-fire sequences and heavy rhythmic unisons. These are starkly contrasted with moments of reverberant echo, bursts of noise in the flute and electronics, and ecstatic rhythms.

MISSY MAZZOLI: Vespers for Violin (2014)
Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers is written for amplified violin with delay and electronic soundtrack.

JOHN LUTHER ADAMS: The Light Within (2007)
John Luther Adams
(b.1953) offers these comments: “Sitting in the silence of their meetings, Quakers seek to ‘greet the light within.’ In his work, the artist James Turrell (a Quaker himself) says that he aspires to address ‘the light that we see in dreams.’ On a crisp autumn day sitting inside Meeting—Turrell’s skyspace at PS1 in Queens, New York—I experienced my own epiphany of light. From mid-afternoon through sunset into night, I was transfixed by the magical interplay of light and color, above and within. Over the hours the sky descended through every nameless shade of blue, to heaviest black. The light within the space rose from softest white, through ineffable yellow to deepest orange. Just after sunset there came a moment when outside and inside met in perfect equipoise. The midnight blue of the sky and the burnished peach of the room came together, fusing into one vibrant yet intangible plane . . . light becoming color, becoming substance. Out of this experience came The Light Within. A companion to The Light That Fills the World (1999/2001), the harmonic colors of this new piece are more complex and mercurial than those of its outward-looking predecessor. Within this more introspective sonic space, the light changes more quickly, embracing darker hues and deeper shadows.”

 

—ACT III—


ARVO PÄRT: Silentium, from Tabula Rosa (1977)
“I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played,” Arvo Pärt (b.1935) says. “This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.” Pärt started his career exploring Neoclassical and Soviet avant-garde styles of music, yet in a quest to discover his creative voice, he retreated for nearly a decade into contemplative silence. During this time Pärt studied Gregorian chant and vocal polyphony, believing that all his prior achievements until this point were devoid of any true meaning or value. In the late 1970s, Pärt published his Tabula Rasa, which embraced an entirely new compositional method called (by him) tintinnabuli (Latin for “bells”). Tintinnabuli technique is one that applies various inversions of a chord by two opposed voices; aesthetically, tintinnabuli is the reduction of harmony and melody to only what is fundamentally essential. The result is a shimmering, oscillating sonic landscape that traverses the space(s) between matter and spirit, darkness and light. “Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers—in my life, my music, my work,” Pärt says. “In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises—and everything that is unimportant falls away.” Silentium, the second movement of Pärt’s Tabula Rosa (“clean slate”) is slow-paced, featuring a delicate melody evolving gradually, carrying us through towards dénouement. As it approaches its conclusion, the work becomes progressively extended and exquisitely gentle, at last reaching the final note, left unplayed. Silence prevails.
 

JEANETTE YU is Editorial Director at the San Francisco Symphony.