Last Friday the Center for New Music hosted the west coast premiere of Achilles Dreams of Ebbets Field, an epic (2+ hour) piece for solo piano by Dylan Mattingly, played by Kathleen Supové. I thought this sounded interesting, so off I went. I had heard a few pieces by Mattingly before, one at the Berkeley Symphony a few years ago and then a piece in honor of Terry Riley commissioned by Sarah Cahill for Riley's 80th birthday last year. I liked both pieces very much and had the feeling that Mattingly was an artist suited to long forms, so a solo ramble through the piano for several hours sounded right. The evocative title also intrigued me, suggesting an examination of being a certain type of romantic young man – drawn to youthful male archetypes like the warrior and the athlete, yet in a romantic, even nostalgic way removed enough from general culture to be individual and aestheticized. Achilles suggests an affinity for the foundational Greek classics, and Ebbets Field (home of the long-departed Brooklyn Dodgers) is a touchstone for the dreamier baseball fans (dreaming itself, as suggested by the title, also seems like an important theme, as if the future is dreamt of by the past, or the warrior dreams up his paler avatar, the athlete; in any case, the suggestion is of a fluid world with its own interior logic, but one that is on-going and continuous over distant times and places). The piece may have more particular meanings for the composer, but I think these things are enough as entry-ways for the listener.
The work is in 24 sections, as is the Iliad, but the correspondence is not necessarily direct; though section 22 is Death of Hektor, and the 22nd book of the Iliad indeed describes the death of Hektor, section 23 is Ebbets Field – though that is perhaps a reflection of the funeral games for Patroclus in Book 23 of the Iliad? Some titles directly reflect the Iliad (Catalogue of Heroes, Divine Rage: Ocean), some directly reflect the history of the Brooklyn Dodgers (For Jackie Robinson); others are more generally poetic (First Spring; Last Spring; Love, Death, and Paleoclimates; and one teasingly titled simply Music). I have to say I decided not to follow along with the titles, but just to listen to the onrush of music, a decision I wish had been made by some of the others in the very full house, who somehow managed to make astonishing noise with their programs; since the program was a single sheet of paper printed on both sides, I really have to salute their ingenuity.
Kathleen Supové is a physically small woman; her hair was in a purply-red Louise Brooks bob, and she was wearing short black boots, black tights, and kind of a short slip with a large leopard-skin print with a thick row of black lace at the bottom. The effect was striking, unusual for a performer, and even authoritative – no one wears leopard-skin with the intention of being overlooked or blending in. But any suggestion of studied eccentricity or the theatrically "artistic" was belied by her straightforward relationship to the piano; she did not play to the audience, but connected to the sheet music in front of her with intense concentration, occasionally nodding to or glancing at the page-turner (whom she graciously introduced during the intermission; his first name was Austin but I did not catch his second name) but then returning directly to the music. I enjoyed her glittering, aggressive playing. I did feel that the Center's Yamaha piano was occasionally over-bright, but maybe that was because I was very close (front row, far right).
From the chiming gamelan-like opening Invocation to the final Last Spring, the time actually flew by, which speaks well for both composer and performer. Obviously two hours and maybe 20 minutes of new music is a lot to take in. A recording would be wonderful, for repeated listening and for movement-by-movement analysis of what strikes the live listener, with almost palpable force, as a Scamander-River-like onrush of music, even with several Messiaen-like moments of radiant stasis, like a pulsating pillar of light. It all felt like a single coherent piece, despite the many small sections and the variety of styles that make it up. In keeping with the title, much of the music is bounding, athletic, youthful, with moments of quieter reflection and suggested loss.
Here is the composer's summary of his method, as printed in the program: "For hundreds of years, bards would travel the Aegean and sing from memory the 15,693 lines of the Iliad. Each time the story might change a little bit depending on the bard's surroundings and memory. With thousands of years between us and then, uncountable waves on the shore, a speckling across the universe of momentary loves and victories and breakfasts and hands running through hair, I wonder what the Iliad in which I find myself might look like – evolved in some cases like fish on land and in others torn asunder like the endless reconfiguration of the continents, or perhaps transformed like the green Sahara only 10,000 years ago. These are the days I've grown up in – from the divine intervention in a walk-off home run to the rivergods in the Hudson to the soft breathing of someone sleeping beneath the window." That describes the effect of the piece very well: epic in sweep but intimate in detail, filled with personal moments that might or might not resonate with your moments, but in either case slip away or return reconfigured (so perhaps live performance, with its elusive attempts by the listener to hold each moment, and its inevitable disappearance into selective and hazy memory, really is the best medium for this piece).
The composer was there and took a bow afterwards, after we had applauded the dazzling and intrepid Supové. He wore black pants and a reddish shirt, with his frizzy auburn hair tied back. He looked very pleased, as indeed he had every right to be. There was a question-and-answer session after the concert, for which I did not stay. Later I kind of regretted this, but since it was late on a Friday night after a work week I was very tired. I don't always enjoy Q and A sessions anyway; I generally prefer letting myself marinate in memories of the performance as long as I can before forced re-entry into the usual world.