Kevin Puts: Seven Seascapes (2013)
Recorded August 2014, Bridgehampton, NY
Kevin Puts’ dynamic piece “Seven Seascapes”, written conveniently for seven players in seven movements, takes the instrumental form of an orchestra on a tight budget; strings, winds, horns and percussion (if we consider piano to be a percussive instrument) are all accounted for. In particular, the addition of the string bass to the group adds to its incredible depth of color. In this instrumental choice, Puts has opened up the possibility for his work’s timbral palette to be as bottomless as the ocean itself, like a full symphonic orchestra, while still maintaining the intimate communication and individual expressiveness characteristic of chamber music. Much like the sea itself, the surface texture of this music is constantly morphing, sometimes violently shaking, sometimes serenely still. Moreover, while the piece is demanding in terms of its ensemble challenges, it is here performed masterfully, convincingly, breathtakingly beautifully and with intricate detail.
Upon a first “blind” listening, I was struck by the use of extreme contrast, placing almost polar opposite musical ideas in close proximity to one another as a way of grabbing the attention of the listener. In fact, each of the seven movements presents a unique musical environment, almost like completely different locations on the globe. (The choice to include seven movements might also hint at the depiction of the seven distinct oceans of planet earth.) On the other hand, within each movement, the organic and seamless progression of musical events is clearly where Puts puts his genius to work. While Puts’ seems to value a use of “form” derived from an organic, intuitive sense of the relation of one musical event to the next, the character of each movement is set apart explicitly through seemingly unrelated musical material; they differ from each other (sometimes directly, sometimes abstractly) in each of the musical categories listed: rhythm, melody, harmony, texture and timbre.
Although each movement exists within its own musical ecosystem, at the end of the piece we as listeners have been presented with a convincing overall narrative that provides a sense of cohesion in the work as a whole. While we travel extensively along our journey of the seven seas, we are gifted at the end with a strong feeling of home and resolution; the beginning of the first movement and the end of the seventh movement relate to each other almost entirely in terms of timbre, gesture, texture and affect. Nevertheless, we have changed quite deal as humans along the way. The end is somber, lethargic, and could almost be viewed as an “aged” version of the work’s beginning; one suggests an unraveling of events to come while the other presents a conclusion of resignation, acceptance and ascendance.
“Seven Seascapes” fits nicely into the Western Art tradition through its strong use of narrative (in the composer’s own words “visual and visceral”) as a defining feature of its musical language as well as its direct depiction of nature. In addition, Puts use of the juxtaposition of consonance and dissonance to direct the flow of tension hints at compositional devices dating back to the baroque era. In the end, “Seven Seascapes” also follows along the Western classical music tradition in the sense that, save for a few glissando passages and some justly tuned chords by the performers, it is a piece which does not depart theoretically from equal temperament, the same tuning system used by the same Classical composers we have all known for centuries. On a first blind listening, I don’t think that “Seven Seascapes” was intended to be a microtonal work.
Live recording accessed on 02/26/19 from:
Kevin Puts: Seven Seascapes for Flute, Horn, Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass, and Piano (2013)
Featured on BCMF Premieres: Seascapes
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Marya Martin, flute
Stewart Rose, horn
Amy Schwartz Moretti, violin
Choong-Jin Chang, viola
Nicholas Canellakis, cello
Jeffrey Beecher, bass
Gilles Vonsattel, piano
I. “Exultation is the going of an inland soul to sea…” (Emily Dickinson) 00:00–02:27
II. “A lone gray bird…alone in the shadows and grandeurs and tumults of night and the sea” (Carl Sandburg) 02:27–04:48
III. “A fragrant breeze wandered up from the quiet sea” (Douglas Adams) 04:48–06:15
IV. “Out of the darkness…jets of sparks in fountains of blue come leaping” (D.H. Lawrence) 06:15–07:46
V. “So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric” (Virginia Woolf) 07:46–09:53
VI. “I, while the gods laugh, the world’s vortex am; maelström of passions in that hidden sea” (Mervyn Peake) 09:53–12:22
VII. “…let us find a place ‘neath ocean’s breast and bid her lie where waves are kind” (Benjamin Franklin Field) 12:22–18:18
Recorded August 2014, Bridgehampton, NY