Soprano Corrine Byrne and Trumpeter Andy Kozar of the Byrne:Kozar:Duo gave a performance in Harper Hall on Friday, Jan. 27 as part of Lawrence’s New Music Series. A main attraction of their program was the premiere of a piece by composer Douglas Boyce called “Scriptorium,” which featured four poems by Melissa Range, Associate Professor of English at Lawrence.
Before the performance of “Scriptorium,” Professor Range read the four poems to the audience and offered some of their backstory. The title of the piece, which is also the title of Range’s book from which these four poems were selected, refers to the room in Medieval monasteries in which monks would create illuminated manuscripts, but it also serves as “a metaphor for artistic labor.” The titles of the four poems, “Tyrian Purple,” “Orpiment,” “Lampblack” and “Verdigris” are the names of pigments that were used in these manuscripts.
Range explained that previous jobs working in a theology library and an art college library had led her to become interested in the process of making Medieval manuscripts and in the materials involved, as well as what those materials said about the people who used them.
She mentioned the violence required to create Tyrian purple, for which one had to “crush the spiny snails, / then cut the glands out for two drops of milk.” This meant that many snails had to be killed to produce a usable amount of the pigment, which was reflected in the cost of the pigment as well. Range noted that the use of expensive pigments seemed contradictory to the vows of poverty that monks had taken. At the same time, she marveled at the monks’ resourcefulness in using the soot from their burning oil lamps as the pigment lampblack.
With this background, Range explained that her poems were intended to express her own “religious angst” and raise questions about wealth and power. In a pre-concert talk with Boyce titled “Making and Taking,” both composer and poet also mentioned how Scriptorium relates to an artistic lineage. Range mentioned that her four poems, all sonnets, allow her to claim her place in the historically white male-dominated tradition of using this form to make religious arguments.
Boyce introduced the concept of ekphrasis, or making art about other art, referencing the many “layers of borrowing and making and taking” involved in creating a musical composition from a set of poems inspired by Medieval manuscripts. Boyce also associated himself with a tradition dating back to Guillaume de Machaut of the late Medieval period, who referred to himself as a maker rather than as a composer or a poet.
The first piece of “Scriptorium,” “Tyrian Purple,” featured a buzzy, sort of grinding sound from the trumpet, created through the use of multi-phonics, a technique in which Kozar would play a pitch on the trumpet while at the same time singing a second, higher pitch into the trumpet. Byrne’s vocal line was sparse and featured high octave jumps as well as more disjointed sequences of notes. Byrne used a tuning fork throughout the performance, which was inaudible to the audience, to maintain the correct pitch. Trumpet and voice together created an eerie and unsettling atmosphere fitting for the text’s violent subject matter, and dissonances between them emphasized words like “death,” adding to the darkness of the piece.
The second piece was “Orpiment,” named after an orange-yellow pigment made to resemble gold. It began with a full and rich trumpet sound and featured a vocal line reminiscent of plainchant throughout, maintaining an air of simplicity even through nonintuitive jumps. At times, the trumpet played faster, fanfare-like motifs that gave a sense of grandeur to the piece.
Next came “Lampblack,” which began with a muted staccato trumpet sound like far away dancing, contrasted by a harsher, stark vocal sound. In discussing his compositional process, Boyce mentioned how his music took cues from poetic structure, paying particular attention to the shift in tone, or the “turn,” that typically occurs after the eighth line of a sonnet. This shift was particularly evident in “Lampblack;” over the course of the piece, the vocal line took precedence over the trumpet and was sometimes unaccompanied, while the trumpet line became slower and seemed to play only in response to the vocal line.
The final piece of Scriptorium was “Verdigris,” a toxic and corrosive green pigment made from copper. This piece had a solemn character, and a more continuous vocal line gave this piece a storytelling quality, allowing it to communicate almost as a show of regret or a warning. While the trumpet contributed to a gentle, elegiac atmosphere at the beginning and end of the piece, in the middle it played repeating intervals evocative of an alarm.
Byrne and Kozar’s program featured several other works in addition to “Scriptorium,” including a set of ocean and fish-themed pieces by Beth Wiemann titled “It Floats Away From You,” “Lake” by Lei Liang, “eternal return” by Reiko Füting, “all that’s left is dirt and sky” by Chris Cresswell and a piece by Alexandre Lunsqui titled “Solis,” inspired by the Beatles song “Here Comes the Sun.”
My favorite of these pieces was titled “Lonely Grave” and was composed by Li Qi, with text by the ancient Chinese poet Su Shi. In addition to live trumpet and soprano voice, this piece also utilized prerecorded trumpet and soprano arranged into a fixed media track that played through the hall’s speakers. The piece began with only the fixed media, featuring unhurried melodies with prominent overtones, which created a mystical atmosphere and made me picture mythological sirens.
As the live performers joined, the sense of distance and expansiveness between the live performers and the recording enhanced this mystical quality, while the seamless blend between live and recording nevertheless made the exchange between the two take on the character of a conversation rather than of foreground and background parts.
While pairing soprano voice and trumpet seems like a surprising choice, Byrne:Kozar:Duo offered an intriguing and unexpected selection of the combination’s textural and expressive possibilities. The blend of 21st century compositions with ancient and medieval subject matter created a compelling statement of music’s ability to connect ideas across time.