CAN you imagine 63 percussion instruments being used in one orchestral performance! Include piano, xylophone, marimba, harp, gong, and a great host of drums. Combine these with bold headlines from the brass and string section, and you will find that an orchestra has created an astonishing balancing act.
That was very much the case with the Toronto Symphony the other night when for the first time I heard a performance of Joan Tower's "Sequoia." This is an original work for full orchestra. It is a kind of musical analogue to the giant Californian redwood tree.
Music as metaphor?
Tower's art brings out the equation nature makes of altitude and balance - to take the urban ear by surprise. Her message comes across in great alternating sweeps of sound - upward, outward, downward, and upward again. The musical analogue is shaped through three movements. It is sound that soars, fans out, plummets, and soars again - to go on growing with intricate percussive punctuations - all conveying the perfect symmetry and majesty of the great sequoia.
is an up
is no roof
to earth's joy
to thought's reach.
Now height becomes
Brass and strings cry
keep threading between
percussion's crash and sunder.
A long held
pedal-note on G
shafts through balancing
branches that grow
out and up into
swift shift to new
rhythm, tempo, dynamics, pace.
No stopping, no staining all the rich
texture and instrumental color.
Power and grandeur
So a tree may become music to the ear and literature to the eye. But when does a man become a tree?
From the ontological to the bizarre. From the music of natural phenomena to the music of family fun. When my children were very small, their father would sometimes assume the posture of what they both referred to affectionately as the "Daddy-tree." They would take turns to climb my "branches" until, trumpeting triumphantly, they reached the very top, hanging on securely to my ears.
On the night of my return from hearing "Sequoia," my now husky son greeted me in the kitchen with a grin. Stephen has an incurable sense of humor. There he stood, arms bent, a chuckling giant nodding across the decades to me with an invitation to climb that "Steve-tree."
This young man is no redwood, but scanning his rugged height presented problems. With some filial assistance, however, I reached my destination, and was then borne aloft upon his "branches," laughing and protesting to even greater height!
It was a decidedly percussive moment, and through the staccato of our mirth there swept again the long held pedal-point on G....
Supported by strong, young arms and a laughing literalism, I enjoyed my second lesson that night in the philosophy of altitude!