Matthew Guerrieri reviews Keeril Makan’s world premier by Either/Or
In the ever-futile quest to match up language with the experience of music, “meditative” is a useful shorthand, able to hint at a calm surface, a reflective cast, and an eloquent stillness all at once. (I’ve used it that way, certainly.) It is also, in the strictly literal sense, wrong. Keeril Makan’s Letting Time Circle Through Us really is meditative, in that, intentionally or not, it is true to the experience of meditation. It is a process and a journey, not a fixed state. And the journey isn’t always smooth.
Makan’s piece was performed by the New York-based ensemble Either/Or at MIT’s Killian Hall on April 5. It was the premiere of the full score. (The group introduced a 12-minute excerpt of the piece in Pittsburgh last fall.) Commissioned for the group through Meet The Composer (one of the last such commissions before the Meet The Composer/American Music Center merger), the work utilizes an unusual and somewhat distinct ensemble: cimbalom (David Shively), guitar (Dan Lippel), crotales and glockenspiel (Russell Greenberg), violin (Jennifer Choi), cello (Wendy Law), and piano (Taka Kigawa). It’s a sound world both ringing and atomized.
Letting Time Circle Through Us stretches a 50-minute canvas, broken up in a rondo-like way. The ritornello—almost ceremonially repetitious, marked by a rising major-second motive, a repeated, irregular inhalation—is repeatedly, sometimes suddenly interrupted by ideas that amass weight and shadow. The contrasting sections provide as much obstruction as variety, like formal parallels to the hindrances the Buddha warned about:
[T]here are these five obstructions, hindrances, corruptions of the mind, weakeners of wisdom. What five? Sensual desire is an obstruction, a hindrance, a corruption of the mind, a weakener of wisdom. Ill will is an obstruction … Sloth and torpor are an obstruction … Restlessness and remorse are an obstruction … Doubt is an obstruction … a weakener of wisdom. These are the five obstructions, hindrances, corruptions of the mind, weakeners of wisdom.
The practice of meditation is all about overcoming those hindrances—not by ignoring them, but instead by acknowledging them, examining them, because, to this way of thinking, by combining something bad (a hindrance) with something good (mindfulness), the good wins out.
That’s not to say Letting Time Circle Through Us is a triumphant piece. Its examination of its interruptions is dark and moody. Even the quieter contrasts are continually off balance: a 3/4+7/8 cimbalom pattern (later taken over by the piano) seeds a guitar line that upends the usual major/minor implications of the overtone series; a seemingly limpid piano loop is at hemiola odds with a string melody; a gentle gymnopedie is gradually encrusted with dense harmonies. The ostinati, more often than not, are inexact, almost-but-not-quite interlocking. (Points of arrival are less about dissonance and consonance than about a set of patterns finally settling, even into a clashing texture.) But there is a thread of optimism—that opening major second is constantly recontextualized, from a brooding, minor-scale la-ti to a hopeful, major-scale re-mi at the work’s climax.
And Letting Time Circle Through Us does, perhaps, embody the modest goal of any given meditation, that you end up a little farther along the path than when you started. Throughout the piece, the unusual instrumentation is used to constantly reimagine and translate timbres. The cimbalom’s buzz becomes a combination of guitar and pizzicato cello; piano and crotales trade their fraternal twin attack-and-decay sounds. During that gymnopedie section, Choi kept repeating the same note, but fingered on different strings. At the outset and the close of the piece, Shively and Lippell briefly utilized E-bows, an almost incorporeally delicate sound on cimbalom or acoustic guitar: in the beginning, an inchoate element, but by the end, a brief glimpse of, maybe, the instruments’ deeper natures. The way Letting Time Circle Through Us prompts and sustains that awareness is a considerable musical achievement.