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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: No cubby holes in ‘Sustainable Voices’ concert in Green Bay

Critic At Large

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Music

Concert image.

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Music is…

The environment is…

Thought is…

Put them together, and they kind of/sort of maybe define “Sustainable Voices: A Musical Exploration of Ecological Sustainability.”

A program with that title was performed live Monday night as part of the “6:30 Concert Series” with no in-person audience in Fort Howard Hall of the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

An important word in the stack is “university.” This was a concert of learning and exploration and consideration and… and… musical notes put together in ways that never hit the Billboard Top 10. The notes were built for elevated considerations and concerns, the stuff secondary (and beyond) education is about.

Jumping into the performances, with descriptions in a program in which the mind is not trapped in cubby holes of everyday music:

+ “Amber Waves” – Evan Williams

   Michelle McQuade Dewhirst, horn

The subtitle is “for horn and interactive electronics.”

As is the case for most of the selections, the aura is haunting and dark.

As Michelle McQuade Dewhirst explains at the end, the composer is calling up on his youth living next to a farm field… the title drawing on “amber waves of grain,” I guess. One impression may be a walk through a thick field. Mine was a walk on the other side of the moon, moving through a dark, unknown landscape while one is not sure where one is going.

The music is of the horn, embellished. A note is set in motion, with an electronic infusion picking up on that. Layers are added to the electronic sound along with human-played notes that are not fully recognizable as horn sounds… but just.

+ “A Song for Our Warming Planet” – Daniel Crawford

   Michael Dewhirst, cello

The basis is a 132-year study of the pattern of tree ring growth – with the title representing the finding.

The music is barely audible, and the pattern is note by note repetition.

+ “denial” – Michelle McQuade Dewhirst

   Michael Dewhirst, cello

The previous work is short and paired with “denial,” which is akin to a conversation about the yes and no opinions on climate change.

The music begins with a melancholy flow, punctuated by hard, emphatic notes – like exclamation points. The music/debate becomes more and more conflicted, ending on a low, certain “no.”

+ “Dark Wind” – John Luther Adams

   UW-Green Bay New Music Ensemble

Michelle McQuade Dewhirst, who has introduced all the selections, notes the composer’s thoughts on bridging “political music” with that of art and how tenuous the relationship can be. A thinking hat is required.

The title references “wind;” my take is that of the power and flow of gliding under sea slowly. The mind image is mostly darkness but light high up above.

The music is a sustained pattern, at length, with the instruments in a fusion as note colors and intensities progress by iotas. One feels surrounded.

A thought: How does one, as a composer, hear this music?

Another thought: This is another gloomy piece, and, in the middle of a pandemic, if you look for gloom and doom, you will find it.

      Emma Brickey, bass clarinet; Ethan Christiansen, vibraphone; Shelby Keller, conductor; Ava

      Retzlaff, piano; Bill Sallak, marimba/director

+ “Sostenere” (world premiere) – John Salerno

   UW-Green Bay Faculty Jazz Combo

      Adam Gaines, trumpet; John Salerno, saxophone; Christine Salerno, piano; Courtney

      Sherman, vocals; Frankie Salerno, guitar; Andrew Bader, bass; Bill Sallak, drums

Light!

The work is introduced as John Salerno of the UWGB Music faculty being inspired by the university’s thrust from the start, when it was nicknamed “Eco-U.” That environmental/ecological consciousness is certainly part of this program at a university that was among those on board for the first Earth Day in 1970.

In a way, “Sostenere,” which means to sustain, could be the theme song for UWGB. It is primarily bright and celebratory. The piece opens and closes with piano notes that sustain, and between are saxophone and trumpet colorations along with voice sprinkling vivid vitality in the immortal, happy jazz words, “we ah we ah bad do da da.”

+++

The 81-minute program was performed with everyone masked.

It took on serious and supremely complex matters, with music’s intricacies woven into the maze of humankind’s status in what is happening to Earth, and beliefs about that.

In opening remarks, David Voelker, Ph.D., professor of humanities and history, College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, acknowledged the essence of Native Americans in environmental consciousness. Voelker listed all Wisconsin tribes after especially noting Ho-Chunk and Menominee nations for their historical presence in the Green Bay area.

Below is Voelker’s written description of thoughts that helped shape the framework of Monday’s musical program.

***

2020 Theme

Beyond Sustainability: Imagining an Ecological Future The COVID-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which have cast intense light on the challenges that we face as a society, provide especially poignant contexts to address the theme of “Beyond Sustainability: Imagining an Ecological Future.” We need a more robust framework than “environmental sustainability” to address the interrelated environmental and social crises that we now face. The word “environment” draws a line of separation between humans and the rest of the community of life. “Ecological” better captures the vital relationships among all living beings and systems on the planet. “Sustainability” implies that we have a stable condition that we can preserve going forward. In fact, we face decades if not centuries of climate disruption and rising sea levels, even if we dramatically reduce carbon emissions over the coming decades. Moreover, to pursue “sustainability” begs questions that we have largely avoided: What do we want to sustain? What can we hope to sustain, given that it’s not logically possible to sustain the status quo? How can we simultaneously address ecological and social justice issues? To think “Beyond Sustainability” is not to negate sustainability as a goal, but our situation challenges us to boldly think, feel, and imagine how we can grapple with unsustainability and see it for what it is: a multifaceted, “wicked” problem that will increasingly manifest itself across all aspects of our lives over the coming decades, with especially harmful results for the larger community of life of which we are a part and for many people around the world who already struggle to make ends meet.

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