Review The Unchanging Sea / Gordon, Rus Broseta, Mukaiyama, Seattle Symphony

Artwork: Digital collages by Denise Burt using images from The Unchanging Sea by Bill Morrison

September 14th marked the physical release date of Michael Gordon´s The Unchanging Sea, a collaboration performed by pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama and the Seattle Symphony conducted by Pablo Rus Broseta. The work has already been released digitally on August 24th, by Cantaloupe Music, and distributed by Naxos of America.

Michael Gordon is no newcomer in the contemporary music-scene, his former works include commissioned compositions, and some intriguing cross-arts collaborations. Together with fellow composers Julia Wolfe and David Lang, he founded Bang on a Can in New York, an organization that has proved an important intermediary for contemporary music, presenting hundreds of concerts and related events worldwide. Considering the innovative mindset of Gordon´s projects, Tomoko Mukaiyama fits very well into this project. Mukaiyama has engaged in cutting-edge collaborations with notable performance artists and choreographers such as Marina Abramovich and Jiří Kylián. Her work shows a strong dedication for pushing boundaries between contemporary music and other performing arts.

The Unchanging Sea starts heavy and moody with a repeated motive of the piano accompanied by chilling effects of the wind instruments and in a notable way, the first third of the work is simultaneously meditative and near-uncomfortable. Mukaiyama´s performance is vibrant, stirring up black magic throughout the work and apart from her part, wind instruments are very present, strings make up for a minimal background. Gordon is known for testing the capacities of the symphony orchestra, and here he has created a soundscape that might, to some listeners, hint at the darkness of some of Bartók´s piano works. This, however, is Gordon´s clear-cut world of his own sound. The repeated piano motive is a main element throughout the work, meeting a vertiginous B motive in between. The atmosphere changes dramatically towards the end, expanding the density of the sound and escalating in tension. Considering this, The Unchanging Sea seems quite the contradictory choice of title, a subject of the listener´s interpretation. Mukaiyama´s performance in the cadenza is worth mentioning, it is introspective and “wave-like“ inside a time-stop effect, accompanied by obvious sea-waves from the percussion department.

The second piece, Beijing Harmony is shorter, it is charming with a similar, sinister air about it.
It was commissioned by the National Centre for Performing Arts in Beijing, for the “Composing China” project. Here we have strings “rubbing” into a mass of sound which thickens and broadens, then morphs into rhythm and motion. The ascending flow and direction then calm down towards the end, opposite to The Unchanging Sea.

Those two pieces might give, by their titles and structures, references to brutality of nature and the often saturated, man-made landscape. Both are strong compositions, with the former perfectly supported with the magnetic force that is Tomoko Mukaiyama.

Listen here, or here:

The Unchanging Sea