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A Subtly Harrowing, Incredibly Timely Musical Parable From David Serkin Ludwig and Katie Ford

In the west, extrasensory perception has typically been associated with women. Those believed to be clairvoyant were typically shunned or banished….or worse. Among women in Europe in the Middle Ages who weren’t gruesomely murdered for ostensibly possessing a well-developed sixth sense, one option was to be walled up inside a church. Townspeople could come and consult the mystic through a small window, her only connection with the outside world. In their new cantata The Anchoress – streaming at youtube – composer David Serkin Ludwig and poet Katie Ford relate an incredibly timely and understatedly disturbing narrative about one woman so confined.

In the title role, soprano Hyunah Yu demonstrates as much remarkable clarity as range: she’s not one to let the challenges of hitting the notes get in the way of telling a story. Behind her, the looming resonance and mysterious microtones of saxophone ensemble the PRISM Quartet contrast with the lively flurries of Renaissance ensemble Piffaro. Informed by minimalism and spectral music as much as the baroque works he frequently quotes here, Ludwig’s themes are dynamic and dramatic if usually on the quiet side.

Priscilla Herreid‘s dancing, leaping, occasionally shrieking recorder is a persistent contrast with the sustained clouds of massed saxes. Terror is more of an omnipresent threat than actually front and center, for the most part, although when it is Yu and the ensembles make that ineluctably clear. Ford’s tale begins as Yu’s stricken narrator starts to come to grips with the prospect of never again being part of the outside world. It ends as you would expect, considering the circumstances. Some details are left to the listener to fil in, because Ford has built ommissions into the text, as if it had been censored, in “A time of great mortality.”

A theft, an injury while making an escape, and an angry mob are involved, or at least alluded to, through sudden swoops and dives over a more-or-less persistent calm. Ludwig and Ford wrote this before the lockdown, so this isn’t specifically a parable of the perils of being unmasked in a world of psycho maskers. But it’s hardly a stretch to read it that way.

After the story has run its course, the ensembles conclude with an instrumental triptych: puffing winds in contrast with stillness, a cantabile Debussy-esque interlude and an increasingly ghostly conclusion. As accessible and profoundly relevant as this is, it should reach an audience far beyond the avant garde.


A Free, Family-Friendly Outdoor Show by a Fascinating String Quartet

Of all the surprisingly large number of concerts, secret and otherwise, happening in the United States this month, one especially intriguing one is taking place this Sept 19. The Dakota String Quartet are playing a free concert at Good Earth State Park in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. There will be two sets, at 10:30 AM and noon. It’s not known what the program is, but the group have an enviable track record of rescuing rare repertoire. For those of you who use GPS, the street address is 26924 480th Ave. The show is free; be aware that South Dakota State Park tags are required for vehicles entering the space.

The quartet – violinists Magdalena Modzelewska and Doosook Kim, violist Yi-Chun Lin, and cellist Robert Erhard – are all members of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra. This group explore some incredibly interesting, relatively unknown material. For example, they’ve advocated for brilliant/obscure Northern Plains composer Arthur Farwell. Check out their recording of his 1922 string quartet The Hako. Influenced by Lakota songs, it’s incredibly eerie, and decades ahead of its time with its bracing close harmonies, and lushness in contrast to an austere undercurrent.

Arts Journal called Farwell the American Bartok, which sounds ridiculously farfetched, but if you listen to Farwell’s music, that comparison isn’t as outrageous as it might seem. And his more minimalist moments prefigure the American movement that would crystallize around Philip Glass more than half a century later. For example, give a listen to the lithe, anthemic Farwell chorale Pawnee Horses, sung in Navajo.

To the extent that Farwell is even known today, there’s been a PC backlash which colors him as a cynical cultural appropriationist. A more reasoned appreciation would consider him an irrepressible cross-pollinator.

Longtime followers of this page may be wondering why, after almost nine years of advocating for live music in New York City, this blog would suddenly branch out to South Dakota. Most obviously, South Dakota has very strongly resisted the lockdowner insanity which has crushed the performing arts around the world this year. The state’s outspoken, pro-freedom governor, Kristi Noem gets huge props for staying strong in the face of what must be enormous pressure. Many music venues are open and currently hosting shows. This won’t be the last time you see “Great Faces, Great Places” on this page.