Violist and Eastman School of Music Professor John Graham gave an astounding recital of contemporary music on Jan. 25. The music, Graham said, was something of a personal collection – five of the six works performed were written for and premiered by Graham, previously. He decided to revisit these works for his audience because he has had the opportunity to play them many times.

First on the program was “Harmonie,” composed in 2000 by Eastman graduate Matthew McGaughey. The timbral world of “Harmonie” was far from expected – the tape playback blended with the live signal processing to create a reverberant halo of too-good-to-be-true viola sounds. Delay lines accented snap pizzicati. This timbre sharply contrasted with the resonant harmonies and created a spatial world. In “Harmonie,” the viola and electronics intermeshed to create what could have passed for an entirely electronic piece, but retained the freshness of live music through Graham’s dramatic interpretation.

“Wild Grass,” by Zhou Long, brought us back to the traditional sound of the viola. The piece is based on the foreword to the poem “Wild Grass,” by the Chinese poet Lu Xun. It was transcribed from the original cello version by Long.

Long allows the performer to read the poem before or while performing. Graham chose to record himself speaking beforehand and have it played back during his performance. This decision was a real asset to the performance. As I listened, I was able to hear the viola bring an emotional context to the spoken word. The words of the poem provided a structural validity, allowing musical freedom to create emotion. The words drew me into the music, giving its abstract gestures more solid meaning.

Graham worked with Rochester Institute of Technology filmmaker Jack Beck to create a visual realization of the computer-generated sounds in Eastman Professor Robert Morris’ composition “Entanglements.” After performing this work previously, Graham felt that as a live performer, he had a visual edge over the tape part, which was musically the viola’s equal.

“Entanglements” is an exciting piece, but while the timbre of the computer-generated sounds blended smoothly with the viola’s tone, I found myself distracted by their resemblance to a keyboard synthesizer. The composer accounts for this in his notes, describing these sounds as “often found in rock and other forms of popular music.” And while the visual textures created by Beck were inspiring – he uses beautiful abstractions of water images – the film interpreted the tape a bit literally at times, coming to a momentary halt at least three separate times when the tape part cut out.

The recital continued with works by Allen Schindler, Kevin Ernste and Nicolas Scherzinger.

The scores for Schindler’s piece “The Dying Light,” as well as for McGaughey’s piece, were projected onto a screen as Graham performed. While intellectually enlightening – due to some minor technical glitches – this proved to be a distraction to an otherwise excellent experience. Though the scores were projected at his request, Graham had previously urged the audience not to pay too much attention to the projection.

“I don’t mind being the main visual attraction,” Graham said.

Schindler’s piece was inspiring in its seamless journey through diverse sounds. The piece felt like an artistic duo presented by composer and performer, rather than a piece for viola and tape.

“Birches,” by Kevin Ernste, was inspired by the poem by Robert Frost. The piece begins with a taped reading of the poem and then continues in three musical sections. The composer and Graham decided to represent the musical and literary journey in the placement of the music stands on the stage. One faces stage right, one to the audience, and one stage left. Although it might seem a small detail, as the performer turned to each respective stand it helped brought a formal clarity to the piece while heightening the dramatic visual experience. Musically this piece almost alternates between solo viola and electronic sections, but they constantly overlap in artistic and unexpected ways.

The recital concluded with the incessant pulse of Scherzinger’s “Calico Dances.” This energetic piece seemed an odd candidate for viola and tape. One audience member said, “I’d like to hear that with percussion ensemble.”

Each piece in Graham’s recital brought an exciting new color to the experience, and together then created a delightfully diverse listening experience. Graham’s recital was truly an astounding achievement – for both the violist and the composers.

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