“A mystery: trying to find a balance between the illusion that events repeat themselves, and the reality that nothing ever returns unaltered.”
That is Keeril Makan’s program note to his new string quartet “Return,” which the Pacifica String Quartet will premiere on Wednesday. (The piece is a co-commission by the Celebrity Series of Boston and the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival.) The note sounds like a philosophical conundrum, perhaps a follow-up to Heraclitus’s dictum that nothing endures except change. But in fact, it has a deeper connection to Makan’s experience, one that the piece tries to embody.
“This summer was a very difficult one,” Makan said during a conversation in his office at MIT, where he’s been on the music faculty since 2006. He’s thoughtful, soft-spoken, and precise in his verbal expression. “I found myself being dislocated — physically, emotionally, psychologically, a lot of different ways. And a lot of that dislocation involved returning to physical places I’d been to in the past but under much different circumstances.”
The dislocation brought about what he called “the despairing quality” of the music he wrote during the summer. Musical materials appear, disappear, and reappear. “But each time, because of what happened before, its meaning has changed, and the emotional weight has changed, at least for me. And perhaps it’s a little uncomfortable to know that something that should be familiar in fact is not.”
PACIFICA STRING QUARTET, Anthony McGill, clarinet, Music of Mozart, Makan, and Beethoven
Makan, 40, has risen to prominence on the strength of a set of works he has composed since the late 1990s. Though a few disparate influences can be picked out — Steve Reich-style minimalism, or the sonic experimentation of the European avant-garde — they fit into no convenient category.
His independence is, perhaps, a product of the autodidactic nature of his composition training, which began at the Interlochen Center for the Arts during high school. There was no immersion in earlier models, guidance on how composers had solved certain problems in the past. Already trained in music theory, Makan was simply set loose to learn by doing.
“There were three or four of us in the class, and the instructor just sent us off to compose,” he said. “At the time it seemed totally normal. Only now, in reflection on other people’s experience, do I see how unusual it is that there were not models given as to what I should emulate. And I was happy for the experience, because there were really no assumptions about what you had to know to be a composer.”
Pinpointing the roots of Makan’s style is made more difficult by the fact that, as he put it, “if I’m influenced by something, I don’t feel like the surface of what I’m doing should reflect that influence. It should be deeper.” Hence an interviewer’s surprise when he said that the music that helped him find his own voice as a composer were recordings of folk songs from the 1920s and ’30s.
“[Those recordings] were really about the voice and the expressivity of the voice,” he explained. “What was unique about these different performers was a reflection of the lives they lived, where they were from, all these aspects of their community and background that are not easily encapsulated. So I’ve been trying, in what I do, to let however I’m living my life, what’s coming into my life, come into my music and be expressed.”
What binds his most impressive works together, more than stylistic unity, is an expressive intensity that can be terrifying. The violin-percussion duo “2” begins with a relentless series of repeated notes hammered out by the two performers, and ends with the music devolving into pure noise. The solo cello piece “Zones d’accord” abounds in wiry harmonics — sometimes whispered, sometimes shrieked. “Target,” a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and four instrumentalists, uses texts that come from leaflets dropped over Afghanistan after 9/11. Even without the controversial subject matter, the volatile music could still induce anxiety in a listener. (All these can be heard on a CD called “Target,” a superb sampler of Makan’s work.)
There is something raw and physical about all these pieces, which Makan said was due in part to his working physically with each instrument he was writing for. What grabs your attention even more, though, is their dark emotional valence.
“Up until 2006 there was, it may not have been conscious, an exploration of the emotional life I had at that point which was” — he paused — “extremely negative at times. There was a lot of negativity, a lot of depression, a lot of other types of emotional experience that, when I try and portray it honestly in my music, is discomfiting.” He said that the more recent pieces, though still extreme, “aren’t as negative as the other pieces are.”
This brought him to some wider reflections on the artist’s role in society. “Creating music based upon an unflinching examination of my internal life assumes that my experiences are not unique. I don’t think I’m alone in experiencing the darkness or other raw emotional states that I have expressed in some of my music. In sharing these feelings, I hope the emotional narratives of my music will resonate with the audience. In this resonance, I think the barriers that separate us are lowered, and our suffering is lessened.”
“Return” is the first substantial piece that Makan has written since completing “Persona,” his first full-length opera, earlier this year. The 90-minute opera is based on the Ingmar Bergman film of the same name and was written for the new-music group Alarm Will Sound. It was the first piece he’s written that was long enough to stand on its own rather than fit onto a program with other works.
“I think I’m still reeling a bit from the experience of immersing myself in such a long work,” Makan said. On the brighter side, he added, writing the new string quartet felt a lot easier in comparison. “I’d been training with weights on [the opera]. It was sort of cozy to return to like a 13-minute duration. It’s freeing, liberating.”