Creation begins in the most internal constitution of the creator. Whatever language the creator uses to describe something outside, that person is correlating an assortment of givens with the dynamics that animate them. In this case, the creator is pianist and composer Matthew Shipp and his creation is Sacred Geometry. Shipp premiered his work for strings and piano at the Kitchen on November 11, 2006. He was joined for the performance by string players Michael Bisio on bass, Mat Maneri on voila and Okkyung Lee on cello.
The composer strode to the piano, sat down without adjustment and carved the shape for the string piece to follow in a brief overture. Directing his eyes to music, Shipp unfurled abstract musical statements that included planting chords and an array of staccato notes and then stroking the keys with his fingers. No formula arose until sets of cascading repeated phrases dominated. The remainder of the introduction flirted with thematic material to evolve into a bass eruption that was subsequently balanced with spidery tremolos in the treble end of the keyboard and two-handed caressing of the piano keys. The piece revealed rhythmic content which sparked a bright network of left-handed, scattered fingering and right-handed dedicated chords. After a delicate tuneful set of phrasings, the music rested a breath’s length.
The string players came to the stage. Bisio abruptly drew his bow over the strings of his bass just above the bridge. The tone was continuous and determined; the pitches changed slightly. The viola and cello entered as distinct voices. The piano kept time. The viola and cello sporadically merged into synchronicity. The bass and the piano maintained their presence as grounding mechanisms. The piece took off.
Each player endowed the space with its own character. The music that radiated was not fussy. The combinations of instruments playing with one another varied. The limitations allowed for playing each instrument were clearly pronounced. The improvisation was disguised within the formalized statements. There was a time for large motion, where all three string players dug into their instrument’s strings with their bows causing bow hairs to break and catch the light. There was a time for uninhibited motion, where Bisio drooped over the bass in a pose of complete relaxation to fan the bass strings with his finger. There was a time for small motion, where Maneri’s pizzicato danced on the viola strings like a sprite or he bounced his bow as if to imitate muscular relevées. There was a time for running motion, where Lee’s glissandos addressed pitch range like the turning of a dial. In their sound, the viola and the cello crashed, coincided and counteracted with each other. The two became free radicals. The bass and piano were the reliable groundwork.
The music moved like a spreading fire. It expanded and contracted. It became soft and then increased in volume. Destined to do so, it progressed towards a muted but nonetheless powerful culmination of the piece. This shining moment gleamed in a simple and elegant 4-note unison ostinato from the viola and the cello that did not last for ten measures or twenty but for perhaps over a hundred. The deliberate unchanging dynamic of the ostinato lent impact to the repetitions so that the listener/music connection became vibrantly indivisible.
From the piano, thematic subject matter resumed. The bass caught on rhythmically. The strings played counteractive roles similar to their positioning at the start of the piece. Shipp fingered the keys. All sounds floated in space. They moved through melancholia to touch on extremes and eventually became deathly quiet. Shipp’s entire hands staggered themselves alternately on the keyboard in a chordal pronouncement. One string player at a time built the way back to full instrumental force. Shipp pounded his foot on the floor as he merged with the hugeness of the sonic concept. All the instruments fell back into their individual spaces. They were bubbling with life. Shipp stroked the piano keys; the strings players tapped the wood of their instruments. Seeming cacophony renewed the idea of differentiation amongst the strings. The musicians seized onto and magnified the life that they had tailored. And then it was simply time to breathe. The sound was barely there. And in a flash it was gone.
The diligence of these four musicians over the span of an hour rendered audible the coalescence of a tightly ordered microscopic universe. For Shipp, Sacred Geometry does not represent simply one view of that universe. It represents the beginning of the discovery of the next.