Erik Carlson - Piece for 12 Violins (Parts 1 & 2)
The first time I saw Erik perform, I was immediately struck by the clarity he projected, the crystalline nature of his ideas and how immediately perceptible they are to the listener. As I became more familiar with his output, both his own compositions and his performances of the works of others, I quickly realized this integrity was present in all of his endeavors – from works that necessitate perspicuity, like those of total serialist Milton Babbitt or the vulnerable austerity in the compositions of Catherine Lamb, to those that exploit relations between seemingly contradictory or incompatible techniques, both physical, as in Brian Ferneyhough’s ‘Unsichtbare Farben’, which, like much of Ferneyhough’s work, pushes the limits of the relationship between technical complexity and expressivity – and aesthetic – as in Erik’s own composition ‘At C’, which takes Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde and erases Wagner’s dense and chromatic writing, leaving only middle C. Even in cases that air towards the latter category, Erik consistently creates a vivid sonic space that allows one to entirely immerse themselves in the expanse that connects the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of a piece. That is to say, one becomes immediately aware that there is a logic underpinning the sounds emanating from Erik and the listener is persuaded to allow the piece to work on their ears in its own time, rather than demanding an actively critical listening that constantly requires the performer to justify the piece’s existence through their interpretation. The interpreter’s task becomes that of transparency and self-removal, to be a conduit of the piece rather than its salesperson.
Music for 12 Violins, Parts I+II is a testament to Erik’s ability to render music that is simultaneously pervaded by both simplicity and depth, both equally palpable and refined. Dense clusters of precisely tuned intervals circle each other, carefully stepping from one to the next on a path that grows increasingly familiar but never registers as rote or repetitive. The careful construction of each harmony yields a vivid superstratum of acoustic phenomena that allows the ear to traverse the composite texture by both climbing the verticalities of the harmonic movement and submerging one’s conscious thought deep into the kaleidoscopic complexion. Part I features tightly knit dissonance resulting in acoustic beating that purrs, concomitantly massaging your cochlea and stimulating your cerebellum. Part II immediately strikes the ear as containing more open sonorities (relatively speaking), trading the rapid acoustic beating of Part I for a slower warble and a more variegated texture. I encourage the listener to listen to both sides in succession so that they can properly register the scale of the transformation that occurs between both parts.
Often left out of the picture in the traditional composer/interpreter paradigm is the recording engineer’s role – one that Erik has made an integral part of his work. The ability to approach each component individually allows him to focus his energy on realizing every part with precision that is perhaps unrealistic for the scope of a live performance. Through this, Erik is able to come within spitting distance of some kind of ideal that could perhaps be thought of as the locus where the work’s identity resides.