Of all the ocean-inspired compositions in music history—and there have been many: Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony, and Ravel's Une Barque Sur L'Océan, to name a few—none until now (that I know of) have been based on actual measurements of the sea. Mer, a new, 40-minute work by John Teske that premiered last week, uses data spanning the course of one tidal day between January 3 and 4, 2013 in Port Townsend.
“There may be things that are unexpected or even uncomfortable,” Teske warned the audience before conducting Mer Thursday at Chapel Performance Space.
True to the disclaimer, his were not the romanticized waters of postcard shores, but something untamed, often discordant or unwelcoming. At times the music was turbulent and disorienting and at times it was placid, but it was never still.
Mer rebels against its more traditional predecessors. Unlike Britten or Ravel, Teske uses no distinguishable melody or meter; the structure is ever-shifting, unsteady, organic. Even the sounds the instruments produce are surprising. The tonal quality of each of the 26 string and wind players (dubbed the Broken Bow Ensemble) is quiet and unadorned, almost translucent. The resulting mixture is something complex and textural, a gradually changing entanglement of repeating variations on patterns. To call it layered would be an oversimplification. Layering connotes distinction. Mer is a coalescence.
The process of incorporating the numbers into his composition was involved. He studied combinations of pitches and rhythms, making computer models and even assembling a bicycle-powered synthesizer that helped him internalize the acceleration and deceleration. He then mapped pitches and rhythms to the tide shapes, ranging from most calm and open to most chaotic and dissonant.
“The layering is insanely complex," he explained over email. "I have many color-coded diagrams to help keep my head straight about how each line progresses. Each line take minutes to fully ebb and flow, and the idea is that the layering of six or eight of these lines, all rising and falling at different rates, creates a group effect to be felt as a tide. To state it simply: the whole piece is moving as a tide or one large wave, each instrument is playing one long wave or swell, and each measure is a series of smaller waves or ripples."
On Thursday, each player read from an orchestrated part but had control of the ultimate execution. Teske would often step back, lowering his baton and allowing the music to take form on its own. The composition was divided into six sections, the first presenting the full tide shape, and the subsequent sections playing with fragments of it that transformed over time.
Teske is quickly revealing himself as one of the city’s most innovative experimental young artists, and his interest in playing with themes of nature has been recurrent in recent work. Last June, he performed in Nat Evans' Hungry Ghosts, a folkloric piece performed in Ravenna Park, intended to blend the sounds of instruments with those of the forest. For Space Weather Listening Booth, he and Evans used geomagnetic data and information about solar wind to create a time-stopping acoustic and electronic performance based on the aurora borealis.
Growing up in Seattle and often visiting Port Townsend, Teske’s connection to the water is ingrained and unbroken. On his way home from work each day, he has a personal ritual. There is a particular bench in Myrtle Edwards/Centennial Park that overlooks the water, where he sits for a few minutes and watches the waves.