Estonia in Focus weekend: Maria Kõrvits – through (World Première)

by 5:4

The second piece i’m looking at in this Estonia in Focus weekend is through, a new work for seven players by Maria Kõrvits. In some respects it’s reasonable to think of through as a ‘mood piece’, drawing for inspiration on a series of short lines taken from the opening paragraphs of Virginia Woolf’s 1931 experimental novel The Waves:

Stalks rise from the black hollows beneath.
I hold a stalk in my hand.
I am the stalk.

My roots go down to the depths of the world,
through earth dry with brick, and damp earth,
through veins of lead and silver.

I am all fibre.
All tremors shake me,
and the weight of the earth is pressed to my ribs.

…and I feel come over me the sense of the earth under me, and my roots going down and down
till they wrap themselves round
some hardness at the centre.
I am rooted, but I flow.

Vivid, highly evocative stuff, combining a literal earthiness with powerful elemental forces: soul as seismograph. With that in mind, however, through goes against our expectations, most closely-aligned with the last of those lines: “I am rooted, but I flow”. In some respects there’s a similarity with another work i wrote about recently, Rebecca Saunders’ Behind the Velvet Curtain, since much of the music consists of the players (flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano and percussion) clustering together around a series of pitch centres. These become the focal point for a mixture of sustained pitches – like long streaks etched in the air – and more obviously moving gestures, decorated with an ongoing shower of soft percussive shards, like the heavily amplified impacts of individual snowflakes. The ensemble widens out from these pitch centres, and it’s only when their focus becomes properly disrupted that the music reaches a modest climax before resetting with a new pitch centre.

There’s evidently some difference of responsibility – or, perhaps, authority – among the players. The piano in particular has a more demonstrative role: a muted accent nearly a couple of minutes in seems to act as a tiny catalyst for the expansion and swell that ensues, and in the next episode an extended muted trill from the piano is the impetus for another, more substantial, development around it. There’s a sense of breathing, of the ensemble undergoing slow in- and exhalations, the music akin to the expanding and contracting of a lung. As such, there’s a distinct dronal quality to the piece, but it’s never static, and indeed Kõrvits eventually makes the material much more nebulous, mingling the minimal pitch content that remains with granular sounds, and establishing a nicely incoherent sense of both overall movement and individual behaviour. In hindsight, there’s something critical about this strange section, as the culminating clatter that it seems to engender sounds like a collapse of some kind, as if the integrity of the music had given up from the centre outwards, resulting in everything receding to faint, dusty harmonics. Yet this apparent evaporation of the music turns out to be the origins of a new, high register, pitch centre that, driven on by another trill (and some light embellishments) from the piano, sets up a final extended sequence seemingly made out of threads of suspended gossamer.

Is it a transcendent conclusion? Is it simply saying something of the indefatigability of nature and/or the human spirit? It’s certainly in keeping with the tension of Virginia Woolf’s words, where potentially negative intimations – “black hollows beneath … the depths of the world … All tremors shake me, and the weight of the earth is pressed to my ribs” – are mitigated by the evident integration, the oneness, of the inner and outer aspects of this narrative. Here, peace and unrest aren’t necessarily opposites at all, but concomitant elements within a bigger notion of identity. From this perspective, while at first Kõrvits’ response to the words may perhaps seem surprising – so often, ‘elemental’ is interpreted as requiring large-scale, even overwhelming instrumental might – to my mind it’s highly effective, manifesting the more nuanced sense of self that Woolf was seeking (struggling?) to articulate.

The world première of through was given on 15 February 2018 at Studio Acusticum in Piteå, in north-east Sweden, performed by Norrbotten NEO conducted by B Tommy Andersson.

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