Ensemble Creates Anniversary Work: It’s A Mixed Gift

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Cloth dolls and boughs of foliage are among the objects scattered on the floor behind composer-director Scott Ordway and designer Erica Eliot, creators of ‘The Clearing & the Forest.’ (Photo: Bonnie Arbittier)
By Mike Greenberg

SAN ANTONIO – Any old ensemble can commission a new work, even an evening-length work, as a 25th birthday present to itself. But new music being old hat to the SOLI Chamber Ensemble, that quartet of San Antonio musicians went a step further and hatched a whole new genre. Well, at least a whole new term.

The Clearing & the Forest, by composer-director Scott Ordway with designer Erica Eliot, is billed as a “theater of music.” In a program note, that rubric is said to designate “a hybrid genre of performed art that blends instrumental music with theater, visual arts, design, and ritual.” In practice, that meant the musicians sometimes became non-speaking actors. Splitting from the ensemble one by one, they moved through a theatrical playing space, physically engaged with objects that had been placed there, and then returned to their seats to resume their roles as musicians.

Cellist David Mollenauer in actor mode. (Photo: Jason Murgo)

Although the work is non-narrative and abstract, it was conceived, according to the program note, as an exploration of “border crossing, permanent immigration, and refuge-seeking as profound versions of the more universal human experience of leaving home.” Its three acts, plus a short intermezzo, lasted nearly 90 minutes, not including pauses for decor changes.

The theatrical component of The Clearing & the Forest is underdeveloped – so much so that the ostensible theme of migration was virtually undetectable in the premiere performance.

The venue for the single performance, June 2, was an auditorium in the McNay Art Museum. The audience was seated on folding chairs in long rows flanking a wide central spine where mysterious objects had been scattered on the floor – boughs of foliage, sheets of paper, black shoulder bags, stuffed dolls covered in black cloth. At one end of this spine, the musicians occupied a conventional concert arrangement for SOLI’s instrumentation of clarinet (Stephanie Key), violin (Ertan Torgul), cello (David Mollenauer), and piano (Carolyn True).

Act I (“we must leave this place forever”) came closest to meeting the stated definition of “theater of music.” All four of the musicians by turns left the ensemble to walk slowly among the objects on the floor and interact with them – picking up a large jar and tossing coins into it (the only stage business that made a sound), examining the dolls or sheets of paper before placing them in the shoulder bags and carrying them away.

SOLI: True (piano), Torgul (violin), Mollenauer (cello), and Key (clarinet). (Jason Murgo)

The theatrical aspect of Act II (“we must run like wolves to the end”) was limited mainly to a change in spatial relationships – Key played clarinet on a narrow balcony at the opposite end of the room from the piano and violin, and Mollenauer played his cello in the center of the room. In Act III (“the things we lost we will never reclaim”), True was fully occupied placing a large number of oranges in neat rows across the playing space.

Did the dolls represent children killed or displaced by war? Did the grid of oranges suggest a large group of refugees finding a sweet, peaceful, orderly haven? The work resists such literal interpretation, and compromised sight lines due to the flat floor made even symbolic interpretation difficult for most audience members.

If Ordway’s stage direction left too much of his stated intention unrealized, his music for The Clearing & the Forest has to be counted an entire success.

Designer Erica Eliot prepares the set. (Bonnie Arbittier)

The idiom is minimalist, given largely to repetition of single notes and very short figures. The music is harmonically protean, much of it sailing in a zone near and just bey0nd the edge of traditional tonality, but sometimes, as in the close of Act II, breaking unabashedly into a radiant major key or a sequence of Straussian modulations. Ordway asks for a huge dynamic range, from nearly silent to quadruple forte. The range of affect, too, is huge, from calm to cataclysmic. Only in a few brief sections are all four instruments heard. Ordway uses the changes in the blend of instrumental color  from section to section as a means to structure the whole and sustain interest.

Act I offers no melodic content to speak of; apart from one violent outburst, textures are spare, almost desultory, and figurations generally descend through a narrow range. This is music of confinement and restiveness. The music becomes more generous and active in Act II, which begins with a long, meandering soliloquy on clarinet; there is a striking section in which the cello and violin trade tremolos, and just before the end the cello has a beautiful extended solo that is close in feeling to a Bach sarabande.

The brief intermezzo recalls the vocabulary of Olivier Messiaen, especially the movement “Praise to the eternity of Jesus” from the Quartet for the End of Time. In Act III the music grows freer, more complex, and more melodic, attaining a rhapsodic sweep before fading to a quiet stasis like “a still, unbroken surface,” to quote the indication in the score.

As a composer, Ordway has created in The Clearing & the Forest a musical score of admirable discipline and integrity, and with great heart. As a stage director, he’s a terrific composer.

Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.