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Gerald Cohen: Voyagers, for Clarinet and String Quartet

A well-intended but uneven premiere of an historically interesting new work.

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Composer Gerald Cohen of Voyagers, for Clarinet and String Quartet

[avatar user=”Jean Ballard Terepka” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Jean Ballard Terepka, Music Critic[/avatar]The 40th Anniversary of the Voyager spacecraft launch is an occasion for reflection: anyone who cares about scientific exploration’s expansion of traditional understandings of human purpose can appropriately use this anniversary to celebrate intellectual creativity and spiritual bravery. Composer Gerald Cohen has taken the occasion of this anniversary to write a quintet – appropriately called Voyagers, for string quartet and clarinet – that examines Voyager’s goals and achievements. This world premiere appropriately took place at the Hayden Planetarium’s Space Theater.

From its inception, Voyager was conceived as a spiritual project as well as a scientific one: banking on the success of the mission, Voyager’s creators accurately anticipated that the gathered photographs and collected information about the cosmos’ far reaches would be so rich as to change our comprehension of space itself.

But the Voyager designers also determined that it should carry messages about earth and humanity: the spacecraft was built not just to teach us about space but to teach space about us. This assumption that beyond our human meanings there are other cosmic meanings as well – and that the meanings-systems might communicate with each other, respecting and enriching each other – is surely a movement of faith.

The Voyager carried with it a – the – Golden Record. Designed to be exceptionally durable, the Golden Record contains greetings to the universe in fifty-five different languages. At the request of NASA, Dr. Carl Sagan helped to create the interstellar messages. Linda Salzman Sagan wrote in Murmurs of Earth that throughout the Voyager project, “all decisions were based on the assumption that there were two audiences for whom the message was being prepared – those of us who inhabit Earth and those who exist on the planets of distant stars.”

The Golden Record also contained images, earth sounds and music.  The music was designed not to be the greatest hits of 1977; instead, the choices represented a representative range of significant music of all sorts, including indigenous and folk-music from all over the world, historical and contemporary dance and ceremonial music, and works of individual creative genius, especially from the Western European tradition, such as pieces by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky.

The music of Voyager’s Golden Record served as both the immediate and most abstract inspiration for composer Gerald Cohen. In addition, as Cohen indicated in his opening remarks, he considered the Cassatt Quartet and the clarinetist as his muses and noted that the Voyagers’ composition process had been, in many respects, a collaboration.

Member of the Cassett String Quartet (Elizabeth Anderson, cello; Mueko Otani and Jennifer Leshnower, violins; Ah Ling Neu, viola) (Photo credit: Anna Ablogina)

Before the piece was played, it was introduced and placed in its larger historical context by Carter Emmart, the Director of Astrovisualization at the American Museum of Natural History, who created and organized the remarkable space show that accompanied the music performance, and by Timothy Ferris, author and producer of the Golden Record. Emmart’s and Ferris’ fascinating comments lasted forty-five minutes.

Cohen then spoke; he presented the four-movement structure of the piece about to be performed. Although various passages in Voyagers evoked the diversity of music offerings on the Golden Record, highlighting “both the fragility and the power of human artistic expression,” the fairly traditionally structured piece was inspired by three main Golden Record offerings – what Cohen referred to as “source material” – a late Beethoven quartet, an Indian Raga and a Renaissance dance. Voyagers’ four movements are entitled Cavatina, Bhairavi, Galliard, and Beyond the Heliosphere.

The Cassatt Quartet – Muneko Otani/violin, Jennifer Leshnower/violin, Ah Ling Neu/viola, and Elizabeth Anderson/cello – and clarinetist Vasko Dukovski – entered the planetarium auditorium at around 7:40 and then settled themselves to play from the slightly lowered center of the round performance stage. Voyagers lasted just under half an hour.

Cohen is an elegant, intelligent and eloquent composer; his fluid music, marked by compelling contrasts of spare restraint and lush sensuality, is at once easily accessible and intellectually dense.

Voyagers’ first movement opened slowly and plaintively; when the clarinet joined the strings, stateliness and urgency entered into an unlikely and lovely partnership. In the second and third movements, sensibilities of dance – lively and quick; sweepingly grand and ingeniously delicate – made music’s biological and social origins particularly evident. The last movement contained the work’s most mysterious and exhilarating passages, offering the most explicit connections between the work’s mood and its space-exploration inspiration.

Throughout, the five musicians played with easy command of a technically demanding score as well as clear affection for the music, unerring lucidity and consistent integrity.

Voyager’s Golden Record

The evening held rich promise: it seemed likely that something extraordinary might emerge. But somehow, it didn’t.

The stunning interconnections of science and the arts that the Golden Record embodied were models for the performance of Voyagers with Emmart’s simultaneous space show, but the music and the show weren’t particularly closely connected aesthetically: they just took place at the same time. In addition, because the acoustics of the auditorium muffled what in other venues might probably have been a much brighter Cassatt-Dubovski sound, the subtleties and nuances of Cohen’s score were blurred: with the exception of the last movement, the music had an unexpectedly monochromatic feel to it, a disconcerting tendency to flatness.

The evening was in every respect well intended, but the vision didn’t manage to get fully realized.

Other performances of Voyagers in the future might provide fairer outings. The piece should be performed in a space with better acoustics. It should be paired or accompanied by some of its source material: a concert including Beethoven, a raga and a sturdy Renaissance dance might allow Cohen’s Voyagers to shine more than it did at its premiere. Voyagers is clearly a serious work; it deserves performances in situations where its particular character and strengths can be more effectively and accurately considered.

The commitment of the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium to presenting the culture of space and astronomy by means of finding their connections to creative arts and the humanities is important. The uneven success of this premiere of Cohen’s Voyagers in no way diminishes the validity and value of the Planetarium’s programming or, in all probability, of Voyagers itself.

Gerald Cohen: Voyagers, for String Quartet and Clarinet (November 28, 2017)

The Hayden Planetarium’s Space Theater

The American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, in Manhattan

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Running time: 75 minutes

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