Stretching Nature: a senior composition recital

On Saturday, Apr. 13, at 5 p.m., David Fisher’s senior recital commenced with “Petrified, Splintered,” a string quartet played masterfully by senior violinists Katie Li Weers and Joanie Shalit, junior violist Julien Riviere and senior cellist Joshua Tan. Written in the fall of 2017, this earlier work in Fisher’s Lawrence career was based off the concept of petrified wood, but instead of the normal process of a broken branch becoming skeletal, he “was thinking about the opposite process where a tree is petrified and you have this mass of conglomerate material and then something breaks off later.” He said in an interview that in writing the piece, he was thinking about this concept “as a musical process,” experimenting with a minimalist composing style that can be typical for string quartets in particular.

 In listening to the piece as an audience member, it is obvious that the sharp and piercing repetitive pitches played by the violins are representative of this “splintering” and create a concrete image of pieces breaking off of a whole with the constant swelling and moving patterns of the viola and cello. The instruments traded off these patterns throughout, ending in a unison section with an extended coda of high violin single pitches that left the audience holding its breath in their seats. Fisher explained later that the structure for his recital was inspired by a previous composition student and, like them, he “connected [his recital] together with a theme and dramatic trajectory.” He specifically chose the woods, realizing that all of his pieces had some connection to nature and all test those boundaries of the natural world in their own way. 

The second piece, “Song of the Trees,” used poetry by Mary Colborne-Veel interspersed between flute lines in each of its six movements. The work was performed by three flutists: sophomores Zoe Adler, Carmen Magestro and junior Juan Hernandez. The three flute lines wove in and out of each other, using fluttery techniques and sometimes pausing in their playing to speak a few words such as “we are the trees” and “we build against the sun.” Fisher explained that he utilized indeterminate methods for the performers, giving them agency over the length pitches should be held. He was especially inspired by his participation in the Improvisation Group of Lawrence University (IGLU), and encouraged by his professors to bring that experience to his compositions. Fisher believes in “giving freedom to the people playing” his music and reiterated how “the energy and inventiveness the performers brought to the piece added so much.”

One aspect of his style Fisher mentioned was his aversion to program notes, saying, “[I don’t] like reading program notes that tell you what to hear or what to feel, that’s just so subjective. It takes the fun out of the experience.” This is why he structured his own spoken introduction to the fourth piece on the program to be brief and to the point. “Slenderman: Waukesha Attack” is based on the “horror creation, Slenderman, an abnormally tall man who always wears a business suit with a pale white body, and featureless face.” Fisher became obsessed with the character, following his stories on a YouTube channel and playing video games that included his stories, until he heard of the attack by two twelve-year-old girls on their female classmate in the woods of Waukesha, Wisconsin close to his hometown of Appleton. He described the music written in response to this brutal event in Slenderman’s name as “intended to track the events from Slenderman’s inception in 2009 on the internet forums, to this very real attack in 2014.”

Listening to the piece on Saturday, which was written for the renowned High Score Festival that Fisher attended this past summer, the emotional reactions of the audience to the dramatic and sometimes startling music was palpable. Fisher utilized avant-garde techniques in his composing to exacerbate the unnaturalness and spooky factors of the piece’s story, using the piano, brilliantly played by senior Craig Jordan, as the theme for the two girls and their fantasy of becoming Slenderman’s proxies through their friend’s murder. The twisted ostinato that occured in the violin, played by junior Jessica Gehring, and in the cello, played by junior Julia Johnson, brought a sense of urgency and doom. The piece ended in 19 strikes on the piano to signify the 19 times the girls stabbed their classmate in the woods. The piece was performed in almost complete darkness, adding to the scary feel. 

Fisher’s last piece, written for the Fresh Ink Festival, was based off of an old Wisconsin folk tale, bringing the composer back to his roots. “The Brothers’ Revenge,” which Fisher described as “the quintessential Midwestern ‘two-brothers-walk-into-a-bar’ story,” quickly turns sour and supernatural forces come out to play. Writing for piano, cello and flute—played by Jordan, junior Julian Bennett and senior Emma Reading, respectively—was new territory for Fisher and he experimented with having each instrument represent a different character or part of nature in the piece to tell the story more effectively. Fisher’s closing recital and culmination of his work at Lawrence was truly an impressive finale, and it is certain that whichever direction he takes with composing after graduation, he will continue to be successful.