Discordant harmony

Ensemble Pi and Sarah Cahill examine political activism in music.

A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE Sarah Cahill and Krzysztof Penderecki offer unique approaches to socially conscious music.

A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE Sarah Cahill and Krzysztof Penderecki offer unique approaches to socially conscious music. Photographs: Schott Promotion/Peter Andersen (left), Marianne La Rochelle (right)

Music can serve to soothe our rages, but it can also hold its own at roughing up the political establishment. Shostakovich, to name but one highly visible example, fired veiled jabs at anti-Semitism in the U.S.S.R. with the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, and titled his Symphony No. 13 for the Babi Yar ravine outside of Kiev, where Nazis murdered more than 30,000 Jews. Even apart from lyrical protests, musicians strive for potent messages. Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas, following a performance of his piece in vain at Miller Theatre last month, spoke of having channeled his frustration and anger into the composition of that turbulent piece, after his nation voted a far-right government into power in 2000.

Over the coming week, two more programs take up political agendas. Ensemble Pi plays its free annual peace concert at Cooper Union on Saturday 7, featuring a program that includes works with fraught topics and a powerful chamber piece by one of our era’s great humanists, Krzysztof Penderecki. And in a recital at Merkin Hall on March 12, Bay Area pianist Sarah Cahill introduces pieces from a number of disparate composer-activists, including Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley and avant-garde troupe the Residents.

Ensemble Pi’s program, “Can You Hear That?,” takes its title from Philip Miller’s piece for two singers and ensemble, which utilizes texts from Standard Operating Procedure, Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris’s book on Abu Ghraib. For another new work, Elegy, soprano-composer Kristin Norderval drew upon poet Mahmoud Darwish’s searing reactions to the 2002 Israeli siege of Ramallah. For abstract sonic vigor, Pi will offer the New York premiere of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s daunting Sextet.

Penderecki, whose 75th birthday is being feted internationally, garnered critical acclaim in 1960 with a wrenching avant-garde challenge, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. His work reached broad audiences on film soundtracks, from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. “I’ve written big pieces using big forces, but where I really feel at home is with chamber music,” he says, via telephone in Germany. “Every note has to be in its place; you cannot cover up with orchestration,” he adds, chuckling.

Last month the forceful intensity of his work hit Montclair State University’s Kasser Theater, where the Shanghai Quartet gave the U.S. premiere of his String Quartet No. 3. The opening vivace passage produced an extraordinary undertow, tautly maintained until final gestures from viola and cello completed the quartet’s “open, improvisational form” in a conclusion as haunting as the work’s subtitle, “Leaves from an Unwritten Diary.” The Sextet, which promises to be just as bracing, was composed at the request of Vienna’s venerable Musikverein, of which Penderecki is an honorary member. “Writing chamber music is very intimate, and I write for my friends,” he says—meaning virtuosos such as cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who played in the work’s 2000 premiere.

Sarah Cahill named her commissioning project “A Sweeter Music”—which is not to say the works she’ll play are all goodness and light. “What I like about this project is the diversity of perspectives,” she says. “It’s not a simple issue. I asked Terry Riley to write an antiwar piece.” The minimalist forefather’s response was Be Kind to One Another. “Then I spoke to Kyle Gann, and he said, 'Oh, Terry’s so positive, but not me,’?” Cahill adds. “Kyle’s piece, War Is Just a Racket, had the working title Dick Cheney Is a Lying Asshole.” In it, Cahill plays while reciting from an antimilitary speech given in 1933 by Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, who’d been awarded the Medal of Honor twice—“the most incredibly wonderful, disillusioned speech,” Cahill says.

Also on the bill is The Long Winter, a new work by Phil Kline, whose vivid antiwar cycle, Zippo Songs, made waves when the Cantaloupe label issued it in 2004. Cahill calls Kline’s new work “a really substantial piece. The question comes up: Can music convey a political message without words? Phil begins with a kind of Doppler effect on the opening page—to me, it’s an incredibly unsettling piece.”

Ensemble Pi plays at Cooper Union Sat 7; Sarah Cahill performs at Merkin Concert Hall Mar 12.

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