During the last half-decade, the amorphous Raleigh ensemble New Music Raleigh has taken an inclusive, expansive approach to programming.
They’ve performed everything from Beck’s Song Reader to Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Penelope, from Ari Picker’s folk songs to John Supko’s complicated monodramas, moving between rock clubs and proper theaters and between lineups both sprawling and spartan.
Tonight, New Music Raleigh returns to the stage for first time in more than a year, and it’s in fitting form. First, only the organization’s cofounders—violinist Karen Strittmatter Galvin and percussionist Shawn Galvin—will perform. And together, they’ll play Linda Catlin Smith’s fifteen-movement work Dirt Road, a piece that again sends New Music Raleigh in a totally different direction.
Canadian-American composer Linda Catlin Smith’s music concerns space. It breathes the rhythms of nature and speech. Patterns grow from the almost-repetitions of waves or pebbles or bird calls, from the submerged flow of poetry. Her sense of time is fluid, focusing in on the moment before something happens, where tension and relaxation peacefully coexist. She believes that the space after a sound—that charged silence in which the brain cogitates on what has just occurred—is rich with meaning.
“I called the work Dirt Road,” Smith writes, “because I felt I was working with material that was plain, simple, unadorned. It also implies, for me, the sense of being a bit off the beaten path. I like the image of solitude that it invokes, and the sense that there is not a lot happening. And yet when you walk in the country on a lonely path, there is always so much to see and to think and to feel.”
To wit, in one movement, the violin sustains a single breathy tone. As time passes, you begin to hear the grain of the horsehair as it pulls sound out of the string. A lone bass drum sounds, reverberates, and decays, a beautifully rounded contrast to the violin’s tension. Then comes a single warm vibraphone chord, giving a new home to that violin tone. These three minutes seem to encompass an eternity.
The piece was originally written to accompany a dance, and you can hear occasional bits of kinetic play throughout: A vibraphone solo bounds. Gongs interlock and groove. A violin melody slowly swirls. Each of the fifteen movements creates a distinctive space, and Smith notes that they can be played in any order, allowing for an open navigation of the road ahead.
“Exploration is such a wonderful part of what we do,” Smith says in an episode of the SOUNDLAB New Music Podcast. “I had to really let go of the idea of making perfect things, because if you think there’s such a thing as a perfect piece of music, and that you can make that, that’s hazardous to me. Instead, I’d rather mess about and see if I can learn something and find something that’s intriguing and new for myself.”
It’s good to have New Music Raleigh—one of the few area ensembles now tackling such work—back for such exploration.