It’s up for debate how much feeling a musician can put into an instrument. It’s easy to attest that “feeling” comes from the amount of emotion and ferocity that the operator expresses while playing or the volume at which he or she plays, but it requires some of the highest understanding of the connection between instrument and musician to make a cello wail with sorrow.
UMKC’s Conservatory presented the Composer’s Guild last Thursday, a collection of pieces composed by UMKC students, each of which delved deeply into the idea of how living expression can be conveyed through instrumental sound.
Works like Kay He’s “Fallen Leaves – Drum Tower” demonstrate this using a solo cello to illustrate the atmosphere of being in the season of autumn.
The cellist, Alvin Wong, shows complete control over the instrument, making it sound almost alive, transcending the cello’s natural classical roots into an ultra-contemporary and ultra-avant-garde, though inertly human, sound.
The lack of a discernible beat helps this. Instead, the music simply flows like how one’s gaze roams along the orange and yellow trees bathed in a low Kansas City afternoon sun in the fall. This is human music. It is not made unapproachable by the barriers of academics. It allows the listener to eventually fall into it.
This is not only demonstrated through solo performances. It happens again in “Returning Home,” a duet between piano and cello, the piano played by composer Wang A Mao, and the cello again played by Wong.
Implementing various techniques by both musicians, the work is quiet and uses brief moments of silence reminiscent of momentary deep breaths taken upon seeing a great vista in nature.
The sounds of both instruments are at times mixed. During certain moments, Mao will get off the piano bend and lean into the piano’s innards, plucking at the low strings, creating a sound similar to the cello while Wong discards the bow, plucks and strums the strings with his hands, sometimes dragging his fingers along the neck of the instrument to create a bending and curving sound.
Both instances convey a simple and natural feeling. The chords and melodies are sometimes sparse and difficult to recognize as they switch constantly, but this does not deflect the listener from the overall beauty and complexity of the work.
One must listen to pieces like these without expectations. Like a walk down an unknown trail, they require a personal openness to every aspect of the surroundings, and if that is achieved, the reward is an experience that transcends definition and description.