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Intimate, absorbing, engaging—the Music Division enters the world of the virtual concert hall

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The following is a guest post from Anne McLean, Senior Producer in the Music Division.

On May 28 Concerts from the Library of Congress launches a virtual programming initiative and premieres a new Library commission online Aural Explorations: Farrin, Fure and Messiaen features the stellar International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)  in a special livestreamed concert capping our season-long celebration of women performers and composers. Suzanne Farrin and Ashley Fure appear in both roles in an evening that opens a gateway into the virtual realm for the Library’s concert series.


Co-presented with Maine’s Portland Ovations series, this is a 90-minute, interactive digital concert, offered on YouTube and Zoom, with WQXR’s Terrance McKnight as host. Viewers can enjoy several high-tech add-ons to the usual online concert format, like a synchronous curtain speech for project partners, digital docent chats, and a virtual lobby for post-concert meet-the-artist moments. You can experience a remarkable soundscape, two world premieres, conversations with two brilliantly imaginative composers, and evocative, aetherial timbres from two very unusual instruments never featured in a Library concert to date.  It’s an exciting venture for an historic series approaching its 100th year!


Farrin’s shimmering, atmospheric Nacht (Night) is scored for ondes Martenot, voice, percussion, bass, harp and piano. Co-commissioned by the Library’s Carolyn Royall Just Fund and ICE, the composition was originally conceived for a premiere in our Coolidge Auditorium; next week’s livestream offers a new work created through what ICE describes as “remote collaborative systems,” involving the technical challenges of capturing the sound of the ondes Martenot —“a marvelous radio-electronic instrument,” in Olivier Messiaen’s phrase—and complex editing sessions to integrate individually recorded performances from each artist. The composer’s website her performance career as ondist, describing “the invention of the instrument by the French engineer Maurice Martenot “as a response to the simultaneous destruction and technological advances” of the first World War, a resonant statement now. Farrin is known for explorations of what she calls the “interior worlds of instruments and the visceral potentialities of sound.” In Nacht, she explores concepts of language, translation and identity, setting two texts by the great mystic poets Rumi and Hafiz, using German translations by Cyrus Atabey.


At night our eye is
empty of the moon,
but during the day
filled with the moon.


I came to this door
not to court favor and rank
I am the wanderer
en route to the house of love,
from the limit of nothing
to the realm of being
my path led me!

from a king’s door
that Gabriel was guarding!
O cloud, wash the tears again

Hafiz, free yourself from this cowl.


The Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division holds impressive sources for the works of both poets, in manuscript and printed versions. The elaborate covers and elegant calligraphy of these rare items acknowledge the importance of these masters in Persian and Islamic literature and philosophy. The first is a group of sources for Hafiz, and the second collection includes five manuscripts in Persian by Rumi (link), with the earliest being a 1441 copy of his Mas̲navī maʻnavī.  Our thanks go to Joan Weeks, Section Head, Near East and Specialist for the Turkica Collections, and Hirad Dinarvari, Reference Specialist for the Iranica Collections, for sharing these treasures.


Perception and the act of listening are in focus for this ICE evening. Quality of sound and image becomes a new and necessary medium for concertgoers, as our isolation changes both our experience and expression of music.


Ashley Fure’s interior listening protocol 1, written for this time of social distancing, calls for your engagement with a pair of instruments most music-lovers can easily find: two mason jars or two large glasses.  Fure guides what ICE calls a “slowly evolving choreography” creating an immersive, shining soundcloud for participants “in the privacy of their own ears.”


The arresting, profoundly expressive voice of the ondes Martenot is an intimate presence throughout the concert, heard in repertoire chosen a year ago that seems particularly poignant now.  Emanating a quality of “sublime weirdness”–a description from the BBC–the instrument remains a fascination for composers, from André Jolivet and Arthur Honegger to Jonny Greenwood and Daft Punk. In Olivier Messiaen’s music it is a luminous persona in his Turangalîla-Symphonie, a commission from Serge Koussevitzky, and other works.


Messiaen’s Fête des belles eaux, commissioned for the Paris Exposition in 1937, was written for a festival of light, water and sound along the banks of the Seine. It would be the source for the fifth movement of his transcendent Quatuour pour le fin du temps, written in a German prison camp in 1941.


“The only real interest of this very old improvisation lies in the fact that it uses a sextet of ondes Martenot. […] Musically speaking there is in this hurried and foolhardy work, one worthwhile passage, which I liked (and have always liked) because it symbolizes for me an escape from the dimension of ‘time,’ a humble approach to true Eternity” (quoted in Messiaen, Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone, Yale University Press, 2005).


Marked Infiniment lent, estatique (infinitely slow, ecstatic), Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus (Praise to the Eternity of Jesus) is indeed music outside time. Recast from the original cello and piano version to use the ondes Martenot, this work closes our concert. But the experience goes on: you can meet the composers, talk with friends, and learn more about ICE, the Library of Congress, and our partner Portland Ovations. All the musicians who would have come to perform this music at the Library in a concert originally planned for May 8, 2020 will be on hand for chats in our Zoom room.


Check our website at next month for a post-produced webcast of this event.  Due to technical issues, Suzanne Farrin’s Nacht appears as a tantalizing preview in our livestream, to be recorded in its entirety later this year. Sign up here for our Pick of the Week and Concert News, to stay in touch about future programming updates.

Comments (2)

  1. look forward to another Library concert. We have so missed them!

  2. From 2014 to the present, I have been documenting live music performances in the SF Bay Area of mostly local bands and musicians in free to the public and mostly local affordable venues..I have a You Tube channel with over 250 performances of songs or seperate pieces in video format..How do I go about getting some of this work archived in Library of Congress? think modern day Alan Lomax only with video (or so I have been told) Thank you..

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