On Thursday, November 2 from noon to 1:00 pm, the series will present a free concert in the Grand Gallery by Plains 2, a duo featuring trombonist Matthew Wood and pianist Joshua Pifer. The program will feature music by Marcel-Samuel Rousseau, Norman Bolter, Lawrence Borden, Brad Edwards, Richard Strauss, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Astor Piazzolla. Thanks to a gift from Bob Ekelund and Mark Thornton and a gift from Anonymous Friends of the Series for helping to make this performance possible.
Thursday’s program will include Norman Bolter’s “Arctic Eminations.” It is a musical depiction of sights and sounds from the far north. Pifer said he uses some special piano effects and Wood uses some of the trombone’s extended techniques to mimic sounds from the wintery region. Wood said Bolter used titles like “Aurora Borealis,” “Eskimo Songs,” and “Icebergs and Ice Slides” to describe sections of the piece. “It literally sounds like icebergs crashing down,” said Pifer.
Another piece that translates nature into music is Lawrence L. Borden’s “Conditions of a Solitary Bird.” Pifer said, “It’s basically one big sound effect.” The duo will also play Brad Edwards’ “Blue Wolf,” which Wood said is slower and plaintive at the beginning and end, but has a more rhythmic section in the middle, influenced by jazz and pop music.
Pifer said musical depictions of nature have been a big part of Western cultures for as long as we have records. He said during the Renaissance, a common practice was using word painting, a way to use musical notes and phrases to project the meaning of a word being sung. A simple example would be a rising scale to go along with the word, “climbing” or a sudden low note for the word, “fall.”
It’s musical experimentation, Wood and Pifer agreed. And though it’s still mostly rhythm and melody, when modern composers interpret nature, it can require more than standard techniques for the performers to pull off. As a result, musicians will often approach the music differently than when it’s based on common scales and harmonies.
Wood said when he’s playing standard classical music, the objective is to make it sound like the best recording of the piece he’s heard. But with music like these modern pieces, there’s a different goal, to sound like nature, or at least to get the idea of nature across to the audience.
“You have to really commit and do all the effects,” said Pifer. “It’s kind of just becoming an actor and selling out to the program on stage,” added Wood, who said he tries to think of the imagery from the composer’s instructions while managing the athletic needs of the piece. In Wood’s case that means changing mutes and creating the non-standard trombone sounds required.
Pifer said he spends a lot more time studying the scores of these kinds of modern pieces than when the music follows more closely to convention. He said it’s like figuring out a puzzle, with clues in the composer’s notes. “Any kind of help the composer can give is like a road map,” he said.
Music that tells a story or that attempts to create sounds and scenes from nature is often called programmatic music. Thursday, the duo will also play more standard types of music, but they say it often becomes programmatic. “We have to kind of create the imagery,” said Pifer.
For instance, Marcel Samuel-Rousseau’s “Piece Concertante,” which the duo will perform Thursday, is in three sections. To the performers, the second part is lyrical and suggests a kind of love song, while the third is similar to the first, suggesting a return of joy.
Plains 2 will play transcriptions of art songs by Richard Strauss and by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Both composers lived around the turn of the 20th century. Wood said Strauss’ “Allerseelen” is a favorite. He said the melodic writing is excellent, even citing a couple of intervals that make the melody effective in an emotional way.
Pifer said he fell in love with Wood’s lyric trombone tone. “I love playing those songs with Matt,” said Pifer.
Thursday’s program will also include tangos by Argentinian composer Astor Piazolla, two for solo piano and two for the duo.