Friday, April 12, 2013

Mill Village: A Piedmont Rhapsody

Tuesday evening, the Levine Museum of the New South hosted "Mill Village: A Piedmont Rhapsody."

The multimedia performance--live music, videos, images--was part of the Ulysses Festival whose 2013 theme is "Brave New Worlds: Technology and Art."

 A dozen Charlotte Symphony Orchestra musicians crowded around projected images and videos as they played a six-movement work composed by David Crowe. The piece tells the story of textile mill workers in the Piedmont region, both when they were content with their new jobs and when the mechanized industry left them desolate. Crowe's music is dependent, in parts, on the weaving room recordings for rhythmic backbone, and does a nice job of incorporating footage of mill workers. This work is more than music that adds multimedia aspects; all elements congeal to make a truly integrative whole (a number of composers have attempted this, but most do not succeed).

The "Prologue" opens with a lone clarinet solo and instruments join in one at a time with an individual figure they repeat on a loop. The folk-like melodies and the minimalistic repetition combine to create a half Aaron Copland/half Steve Reich sound.

There are oodles of musicologists who study how regional location is represented musically. With this piece, there are plenty of obvious answers. The footage of a specific place, for instance, is a dead giveaway. But there's something very American about the sound of the music itself: the way the motives mimic industrial rhythms; the folk songs and hymns used to express the community's entertainment and praise; the broad melodic lines in the brass indicate a spirit of ambition and grounded values--things we associate with a national zeitgeist.

I was never the music-and-place kind of musicologist, so I don't have all the answers. But there is something thrilling about hearing a region you know represented accurately through sound. Community, regional and national identity are difficult things to articulate, and recognizing an idea you've had but haven't been able to define is thoroughly satisfying.