By Harlan Glotzer
Entering the Chapel at the Good Shepherd Center this evening, I was struck with the calm and focus of a dedicated artistic space. This was largely due to the beautiful ambiance of the stage and sonic arena created by the Fisher Ensemble for the world premiere of the piece At the Hawk’s Well even before it officially began. I was greeted by a stage, though stark, not lacking in visual interest. Two paper masks created by Louise McCagg sat atop three blocks arranged in a stair pattern, which was in turn flanked by two white screens lit from behind. Simple blacks and whites, but I couldn’t help but follow my eyes around the set three or four times before I felt satisfied that I had truly seen the initial image. The strong but soothing angles were accompanied by prerecorded recitation. I could not quite make out what I was hearing, but the male voice on the PA was smooth and low. I could pick out a word or two here and there, but it seemed less important what was being said and more the flavor of how the sounds filled the architecture of the stage. All this before the music even started! I knew I was in for a treat.
The Fisher Ensemble has been a multidisciplinary performance troupe with headquarters in Seattle since 1995. Founded and directed by composer Garrett Fisher, the ensemble has produced 8 full length operas and still flourish under Fisher’s conception of process driven music. In the post concert panel Fisher talked about how he begins crafting the music with an idea that is typically adapted or inspired by narrative. This could be a story, historical event, historical figure, theatrical work, etc. From this material Fisher creates conceptual ideas, sketches, themes, and codifies the skeleton of the piece. Then the interaction begins with the performers and the specific ensemble for the project. The pieces are worked out to Fisher’s outlined conception, while still allowing the performers the chance to infuse their own artistic character in the piece. Once this is established in rehearsal, it doesn’t change much from performance to performance, and yet there is still some slight room for spontaneity keeping the piece consistently fresh.
This evenings work took it’s Fisher Skeleton from the W. B. Yeats play by the same name, but reached back even further to Yeats’ inspiration of Noh theatre. From that place Haiku by Basho and Buson were utilized and infused into the work. A short introductory solo flute piece titled Hawk Raga for Flute defined the mood above and beyond the stage positioning. Clifford Dunn expertly embodied the breathy and sighing sound of a shakuhachi. The raga began slow, with lilting mournful low tones that were eventually whipped into a fury of notes climaxing with humming notes and split harmonics. The busyness was tempered once again with a return to the placid low tones. Throughout the whole of this short introductory solo Dunn created an entirely wooden sound on his flute that was designed for full quarter-tone possibilities and has been recently evolved into a copy of the Robert Dick flute.
At the Hawk’s Well opened with a very tender and mournful bass solo by bassist Greg Bagley on 6 string acoustic bass. As this chordal and almost polyphonic solo texture grew the harmonium and vocalists entered the mix. Reminiscent of a choir and organ, the harmonic integrity was wholly modern while simultaneously evoking an ominous chill down my spine and the warm comforts of brandy and a roaring fire. The vocal character felt delightfully restrained, but during a moment of climax the clarion voice of Maria Mannisto rung through. Absolutely magnificent. My only regret is that there were not more than a few moments where Mannisto’s power could be unleashed. This overture of sorts continued as the singers proceeded to the stage and expertly outlined the scene vocally before absconding with their character masks. The music returned to the somber exposed bass, and the stage returned to black.
The next events unfolded in a completely new and riveting way, and yet still felt intrinsically connected as a logical progression. As the lights came up, the backlit screens were each occupied by a character. The choreographer and dancer Christy Fisher appeared on the right amidst the chirping flutter of Dunn’s piccolo. Fisher’s movements were exquisite, precise, and not once left the personal screen her silhouette inhabited. Throughout the entire evening I was constantly confronted with the refinement of the Fisher Ensemble. Every note, every step, every action, every movement was controlled, deliberate, and (most importantly) contributed to the whole of the piece. The care in distillation to the necessary elements astounded me.
The rest of the evening was filled with continually escalating moments of artistic rapture. The fluidity of the Fisher Ensemble was palpable, and nothing stayed rigid the whole evening. Characters were embodied by not the singer, but the mask they carried. Each of the three vocalists got a chance to create both of the speaking roles—the Old Man and the Boy—in the run of the performance, and each with their own personal touch and abilities. If I were to point to one specific detail that moved me in At the Hawk’s Well I would first respond that there were too many. After thinking on it though, I would have to say the balance of artistic content and the propulsion of the story was in perfect proportion. Also, the length left me wanting more and not checking my watch.
The Fisher Ensemble will be taking this piece in March to the east coast, and the opposite end of the country is certainly in for a treat. Wednesday, March 17th at the Cathedral of Saint Paul (12 PM) in Boston, and two shows Saturday, March 20th at the Judson Memorial Church in New York (2 PM & 8 PM). Shows on this east coast will have vocalist Shawna Avinger in place of Maria Mannisto, Margaret Lancaster on flutes in place of Clifford Dunn, and Garrett Fisher playing harmonium in place of Esther Sugai.