Dutch printmaker inspires Chihara's musical octet score

Chautauquan Daily

by Jennifer Darrell
Staff Writer

Metamorphosis: a change in form; a turn to or into something else by enchantment or other supernatural means.

This definition, taken from the Oxford Universal Dictionary, applies to both the composition "Forever Escher" by Paul Seiko Chihara and the woodcut "Metamorphosis II" by M.C Escher. In each case, the work begins and ends in the same way, with "morphing" sections in between. Both works manipulate the passage of time and are characterized by a feeling of endlessness, a sense that the work is capable of being repeated to infinity.

Dutch printmaster M.C Escher (1898-1972), born Maurits Cornelius Escher, charged man with being incapable of imagining that time could ever stop. Much of his work, in fact, was aimed at exploring "the realm of the impossible."

In an essay titled, "Approaches to Infinity," he wrote, "Anyone who plunges into infinity, in both time and space, further and further without stopping, needs fixed points, mileposts, for otherwise his movement is indistinguishable from standing still. There must be stars past which he shoots beacons from which he can measure the distance he has traversed .... Has a composer, an artist for whom time is the basis on which he elaborates, ever felt the wish to approach eternity by means of sounds?"

The answer is yes. Chihara's octet titled "Forever Escher" attempts to do just that. By applying principles of "morphing" to the formal content of the work, Chihara makes it theoretically possible for his piece to be played "endlessly." The musical form of the work is comparable to the form of Escher's woodcut "Metamorphosis II," about which J.L. Locher made a valuable observation regarding the significance of duality in his essay, "The Work of M.C Escher."

"A combination of different elements of reality is brought about, this time by means of an unusual double use of the contours," Locher wrote. "In both the print and the drawings, the contours do not serve, as they normally would, to outline a figure against its surroundings but instead delineate figures in two directions, both to the right and to the left. Various figures share the same contours; by these contours they are related to each other; and they are so constructed that they can be repeated, in this linkage, to infinity."

Chihara's most obvious use of dual roles, reflecting the importance of duality in Escher's "Metamorphosis II," is found in the instrumentation of "Forever Escher." Interestingly, the composer explained that, rather than approaching this work as an octet, he considers it a "duet for quartets." In fact, until he attributed "Forever Escher" as its title, the piece was simply called "Double Quartet." In this way, the significance of the two forces — in this case, the two quartets — which are separate at times and blended at others, is clear.

The concept of using "morphing" passages that begin and end in identical ways is the principle on which Chihara's work is based. The piece is in four movements, each containing elements of change as it progresses, reflecting the "morphing" manner in which Escher's images evolve. The work opens on middle C and, after greatly contrasting middle sections, returns to the place it began, ending, as expected, on middle C.

The octet, commissioned by the Buffalo-based Amherst Saxophone Quartet in the early 1990s, was originally intended to be performed in the mid '90s with the Cleveland String Quartet. Chihara explained that there is usually a one to three year gestation period for the composition of a commissioned work. During the composition of this work, however, the Cleveland String Quartet, who had initially suggested Chihara compose the piece, disbanded. As a result, "Forever Escher" was never performed.

Chihara and Steven Rosenthal, member and spokesman for the saxophone ensemble, described the events that have led to tonight's delayed world premiere of the piece with the Arcata String Quartet as "serendipitous." Chihara explained that he was "deathly ill" during the composition of this piece. Hospitalized on and off for over 19 months, the composer wrote the bulk of the music while lying in bed rather than sitting at the keyboard, which is his customary style of composing. Due to the seriousness of his illness, the composer, while writing the piece, believed it might be his final composition. Because of that, Chihara makes reference to J.S. Bach's" Art of the Fugue," which was the German composer's final work and has since become his epitaph.

The relationship between "Forever Escher" and "Art of the Fugue" goes further, however. Although not named by Bach, "Art of the Fugue" is considered the composer's most "baffling" work, making use of a compositional process in which the melody is initially stated and then repeated in its "mirrored form." In fact, all three artists, Bach, Chihara and Escher, were fascinated with the relationship between music and mathematics, a mutual interest that is reflected in each one's work.

The Amherst and Arcata quartets have been rehearsing separately but were not scheduled to rehearse together until a week ago. Understandably, the groups were anxiously awaiting the opportunity to finally hear the work as a whole. Perhaps more exciting, however, is the fact that the composer himself, aside from the sounds conjured by his imagination, will not hear the work until its performance at Chautauqua tonight.

Rosenthal is confident tonight's performance will show no signs of the gravity that surrounded the creation of the music, but rather will be "a joyous and beautiful event that is in no way morbid; rather, it will be life-affirming." And for Chihara it was, in fact, a life-affirming process in the most literal sense.

"I truly believe this work saved my life," he said.

Rosenthal talked about the experience of working with a living composer, stressing how helpful it is to have the creator of "the notes on the page" readily available to discuss details about how the piece was intended to be performed.

He said that whenever they rehearse a work, he and the other three members of his ensemble ask, "How can we best serve the composer today?" He considers collaborating with the composer a luxury and a very interesting way of finding new interpretations of a composition.

The members of the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, for whom chamber music has become a way of life, view their role as being part of a collaborative relationship between performer, audience, music and, in this case, composer. Rosenthal is looking forward to tonight's, performance and is pleased that the world premiere is taking place here at Chautauqua.

"Chautauqua is a wonderful and refreshing place," he said. "I step on the grounds and immediately feel my pulse slow down." And so, after years of waiting and overcoming obstacles, "Forever Escher" will be introduced to the public tonight. It was with hopeful outlook that the work was commissioned; therefore, it is only fitting that its premiere be approached with the same attitude. Its beginning has reached its end, which will become its beginning once again. "Forever Escher," a musical metamorphosis.

Dutch printmaker inspires Chihara's musical octet score
Dutch printmaker inspires Chihara's musical octet score