Like starlings in Winter


For PRoton Bern

I have seen vortexes of starlings sweep through the sky, manically touching every pixel of the visible like an obsessive-compulsive artist readying for work by plucking every dust mote in the air above the blank page, a cleansing ritual. The complex flocking patterns, deep rivers, themselves consisting of a thousand eddies is beautiful. The wiping of the sky is a ritual readying it for evening and marks the transition of the sunset into night.

Three years ago, we lost a friend – Dominique Schafer. A composition of Dominique’s is represented on this concert along with our new pieces, and he was our mutual friend (between me and the ensemble and between me and the other composers –he was more than just a friend to another also presented amongst us). His presence is a chord left resonating with a pedal on the piano.  I remember being moved at Dominique’s memorial when Matthias Kuhn played Schumann’s “Abenlied.” The opening chords of that Schumann are abstracted like a resonant memory in my piece. Schumann’s Dbs and Gs and Abs also inform the harmonic footprint of my piece. And, as I thought of “Abenlied,” “evening song,” my mind returned to the memory of starlings as they grace early evening skies, of how the complex flocking patterns were relatable to a kind of heterophony, wherein a general wave of the aggregate is articulated by atomistic Brownian motions within, dithering, full of individual agency. The flocking heterophony is also a kind of metaphor for how we relate to each other, how people come in and out of our lives, how we fly together, for a moment in the same direction, and other times different. This idea informs the general flow of my piece.  

Continuing within the vortex of my thoughts, my mind then turned to Susan Stewart’s beautiful poem on memory and loss, the memory of happiness in a time of misery, from whence the title of my piece is borrowed from the opening lines (the poem is presented below). Stewart talks of the beatings of the wings of starlings as a music, an orchestration which, “for the sake of each other even in death joined” – that can help us mourn – “clearing around the heart, so it might breathe freely again.”

Much of my music is person-specific and often instrument-specific. I am drawn to the esoteric, the ruggedly individualistic, qualities from which I draw my admiration for Proton Bern – a super group of some of the most talented musicians I have had to the pleasure to work with. Having composed for Partch instruments, having made a practice of hacking instruments, commissioning carpenters and sculptors (and even a chef!) to create instruments for me, and having spent a lifetime inventing bespoke techniques as a vocalist, when I was presented the opportunity to compose for lupophone and contraforte (still rare and special double reed woodwind instruments) in this piece, I felt like a child in a toy shop!

I would like to thank all the wonderful performers in Proton Bern, who have been gracious in answering my questions and trying out ideas as I wrote for them. I would especially like to thank Martin Bliggenstorfer and Elise Jacoberger, whose kind guidance and generosity allowed me to compose for their unique instruments, the aforementioned lupophone and contraforte.

the memory of happiness in a time of misery – by Susan Stewart

Like starlings in winter the wind beating against their beating wings

    the air numb and mutely blank a whiteness

         tumbling the dead leaves they too

           whirled like dead leaves torqued

               one way then another for the sake

                   of each other even in death joined

                       by their scattered dovelike gliding

                          two heads bowed above a page

                              the lamp sputtered flickered sparked

                                  in the deafening silence

                                     the ear is a drum a cavern

                                          that will not close against

                                             the eye has a door

                                               that can bar a whirlwind

                                                    a sanctuary shut to its harm

                                                    Scirocco hot dust breaking in the mouth

                                                  dumb the tongue mute to reason cause

                                               an eye held open to see not seeing

                                            furled the thought dried to powdery sense

                                        one way then another for the sake

                                    of each other even in death joined

                                 by mistaken heaven’s playthings

                             gods needless mindless of consequence

                          three heads bowed above a page

                     an olive stripped bare of its silver

                 and a hill stripped bare of its tree

              barren random an iron lung

          bellowing a dark cup thrown

      into the flames

  draw a clearing around the heart

so it might breathe freely again


© 2020 KEN UENO



© 2020 KEN UENO