Some five seconds passed before I realized I’d kicked and broken my own wineglass full of water.
On Thursday night, I sat on a stool in the middle of CAM Raleigh, surrounded by Thomas Sayre’s engrossing, enormous new take on cotton’s claims to the South, White Gold—the room-length renderings of fields, the high representations of imposing barn doors, the earth-cast sculptures of cotton field fragments.
Seated near one of those sculptures, I had spun in my seat to track the movement of one of nine musicians. For twenty minutes, they had shifted through the high-ceiling space while playing …to me from the earth…, a stunning piece for a soprano and a chamber octet written as a sort of live score for Sayre’s White Gold by Texas composer D.J. Sparr.
They would wander from pre-determined corner to pre-determined alcove, using the room’s natural reverberation to create an almost-unamplified world of surround sound. Radiating lines from “Mi Historia,” a tragic reflection on agriculture’s inhumane side by California poet David Dominguez, the commanding soprano Aundi Marie Moore could sometimes sound as distant as an emergency siren a few streets over, as close as a Sunday morning gospel singer.
This was the first night of a four-day world premiere, so every trick seemed new, every moment novel. I was lost in the work, wrapped up in its exploratory dimensionality and the strings and shrieked notes and organ drones that bounced around the room.
So when I heard the wine glass shatter beneath my feet, I assumed it was part of the piece, played perhaps by clarinetist Sam Almaguer or bassist Leonid Finkleshteyn in a corner I simply could not see. Then, though, I saw a few drops of water trickling toward one of Sayre’s sculptures. I realized the error was my own and immediately turned my attention back to the sound.
So great is the strength of …to me from the earth…, an absorbing piece of slow-moving music that doubles as site-specific work and triples as political performance art. I’ll take it.
Sparr has a rich recent history with the arts in Raleigh. He has performed and recorded often with New Music Raleigh, the organization that coproduced and performed …to me from the earth…. His Approaching Ali was a cornerstone of North Carolina Opera’s 2015 season. And his music soundtracked Earthcaster, a new documentary about Sayre’s colossal sculptures. Sparr composed the thirty-one-minute …to me from the earth… after several visits with Sayre, where he would see early models of the installation and ask the artist about his upbringing and inspiration, his motivation and his memories.
The study shows. Like Sayre’s own pieces, which show the toil behind their production in every smear of tar or every heavy chunk of concrete, …to me from earth… is physical and slightly confrontational. Especially near the start, the tones are snarling, with abrasive slashes of violin digging into a sinister drone. At various points throughout, the musicians whisper Moore’s words beneath her, suggesting a platform of ghosts with pain and persecution that’s needed an outlet for centuries.
And even in its brightest and most melodic moments, there’s a sense of heightened attack to the notes, as though the audience is being asked to pay retroactively for the soft cotton fabric they’ve taken from the hard cotton fields. The music is so beautiful and intriguing, though, that you embrace the ask rather than bristle at it.
…to me from earth… is tied explicitly, of course, to Sayre’s work, which is itself tied to his long time in the South. Still, I couldn’t help but think that this kind of grand art-and-sound synergy, especially on an ordinary Thursday night, reflected the scope of bigger cities with more robust funding and resources.
But that’s the task that our art museums, at their best, have taken upon themselves in recent years—that is, serving as networking hubs that enable ever-bigger ideas to happen in our relatively small city. Together, …to me from earth… and White Gold—the project of several state-sponsored and private organizations, with help from generous private donors and facilitators—are one very vivid realization of such possibilities. Sure, both pieces could work anywhere, but they speak to some of the greatest work CAM and Raleigh can do.
Sorry about the wineglass.
…to me from earth… and White Gold
CAM Raleigh, 409 West Martin St.
Friday, Nov, 11, 8 p.m., $20–$25
Saturday, Nov. 12–Sunday, Nov. 13, 8 p.m., $20–$25