The trouble with modern music is that it’s often a lot of work for the listener. Sometimes the extra effort required is well worth it. Other times the net gain isn’t quite so clear. Reaching For Nothing: Water’s Thirst, a collaboration between composer Peter Hatch, architect Derek Revington and choreographer David Earle, at the Perimeter Institute, falls in to the latter category.
Described in the notes as a “110 minute audio-visual meditation,” Reaching is based on nine texts on themes of death, knowledge and time. Granted, these are not concrete ideas but the piece is vague almost to the point of self-consciousness.
At the end of the first half, Reaching For Nothing was a non-narrative hodge-podge of hyper-intellectual ideas that ticked all the boxes of the modern interdisciplinary/multimedia stereotype. It’s too bad quite a few people didn’t return after the intermission because by the time the second half finished Reaching had transformed itself into something altogether different.
The eight main sections are arranged into a series of four arches, sort of like a rainbow with a mirror in the middle, and after the intermission, we began the journey back to the beginning. The texts were different but there were familiar aural and ideological landmarks along the way that provided the context missing from the first four sections.
Section Five (the mirror of Section Four) opened with phase-shifting temple blocks and pointillistic strings. In the background, Perimeter Institute physicist Raymond Laflamme wrote out formulae from his research on the chalkboard while Ann Marie Donovan recited part of I Came Into The Unknown by 16th century Spanish poet Saint John of The Cross. The poem’s central idea is “unknowing rising beyond all science” and Laflamme’s erasure of all his work at the end of the section was unexpectedly poignant.
In Bardo, (the sixth section and mirror to the third), the lighting, dancers and musicians created something really special. Inspired by passage from the Tibetan Book of The Dead, the section featured lyrical lines from cellist Paul Pulford over top of an ostinato played by the second cellist, Lorna Heidt. Hatch instructed Heidt to tune her lowest string down a fourth, which created a sound that was both soft and rough. Dancers Suzette Sherman and Michael English repeated a sequence reminiscent of the PietÃ as well as a father putting his child to sleep. The small hint of narrative provided by the dances was an enormous help for making sense of what was happening.
When you’re involved in the creation of something over a long period of time, it is easy to lose track of how an uninitiated audience will perceive your work. Hatch, Revington and Earle presumably had six months, or a year to mull over the implications of their ideas but the audience only got 110 minutes. Reaching For Nothing: Water’s Thirst has several clusters of imaginative and thought provoking minutes. With a few tweaks this excellence could extend the entire length of the piece.