By Frank J. Oteri
Like many of the so-called “Holy Minimalist” composers of Europe (e.g. Arvo Pärt, Giya Kancheli, John Tavener, Henryk Górecki, and her former teacher, the late Nikolai Korndorf), Jocelyn Morlock conjures the vastness of eternity through hauntingly beautiful music which — while resolutely tonal — occasionally revels in modal ambiguity, secondal as well as parallel harmonies, and periodic stasis.
Establishing herself on the West Coast of North America ties Morlock to another important tradition, that of the “Left Coast Mavericks”—composers such as Californian Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness (who spent the last three decades of his life in Seattle), fellow Vancouverite Stephen Chatman (another of her teachers), or Alaskan-based John Luther Adams; like many of the compositions of these other New World sonic explorers, Morlock’s scores often contain carefully considered percussion sonorities or multiples of the same instrument and are frequently inspired by her natural surroundings and the mythologies that have developed around them.
And like several of the key women composers of the past century (Meredith Monk and Sofia Gubaidulina immediately come to mind), Morlock infuses her music with an innate physicality as well as elements of vulnerability: voices and instruments skirt registral extremes and extremely fragile timbres are often foregrounded. Yet despite its undeniable relationship to these disparate compositional lineages, Morlock’s music could not have been created by anyone else at any other time or place.
From the earliest scores she still acknowledges – the chamber ensembles works Velcro Lizards (1996) and Blood, Rain, Violets (1997) – through to her brand new flute concerto, Ornithomancy (2013), Morlock always has a clear and unmistakable compositional voice.
A highlight among her early works is her quartet Bird in the Tangled Sky (1997), scored for the same instrumental combination as Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (clarinet, violin, cello, and piano); its seamless blend of free-floating, almost arrhythmic flourishes and insistently throbbing ostinatos as well as its eerie cascades of glissandos and scratchy tremolos lend it a particular poignancy which make it a fitting heir to Messiaen’s legendary composition.
Already in Lacrymosa (2000), for soprano, mezzo-soprano, string trio, double-bass, and percussion, and Golden (2001), for soprano, a Baroque string orchestra, and auxiliary percussion, Morlock’s signature interweaving of vocal and instrumental lines creates a sound world that is simultaneous intensely dramatic as well as somewhat mysterious, since the singers and instrumentalists both vying for the listener’s attention creates an irresolvable ambiguity of focus.
Perhaps Morlock’s most remarkable manifestation of this blurring of solo and accompaniment to date is in Exaudi (2004) for chamber chorus with violoncello solo, commissioned and premiered by musica intima, a choral group whose recording of the work fetched a 2011 Juno Award nomination for Classical Album of the Year as well as fetching Morlock a 2011 Juno Award nomination for Classical Composition of the Year.
Choral settings are most frequently either completely unaccompanied or feature the chorus with a keyboard instrument (usually organ or piano), an ensemble, or a full orchestra. By pitting the chorus against a single cello, clearly a solo instrument, Morlock sets up something of a sonic paradox which she exploits to its fullest potential during the piece’s seven minutes. Since a large SATB chorus could easily completely overpower a solo cello most of the time,
Morlock suggests three on each part in order to maintain a balance, albeit a precarious one. The work, which sets a prayer from the Requiem mass, begins quietly with just the basses, who are then joined by the tenors, intoning the opening line of the text: “Exaudi orationem meam; ad te omnis caro veniet.” (“Hear my prayer, for unto you all flesh shall come.”)
The sopranos and altos have still not entered as the cello makes its opening utterances, in its highest register, immediately hovering above the male voices, its trills and other ornaments already clearly setting it apart from the voices’ almost Gregorian phrases which remain focused on that opening line. The altos then join in, but almost imperceptibly so, remaining at the bottom of their register. When the sopranos finally enter, the cello initially drops out, as if admitting that it cannot compete with their tessitura. But this is ultimately a ruse, since at the point when the sopranos reach a climactic high A, the highest note they have sung thus far, the cello returns, soaring above them on an otherworldly high C. The cello gradually descends, first matching the sopranos phrases then ultimately plunging below everyone — even the basses — before returning upwards, but throughout its melody always stands out, calling attention to itself with continual trills as well as triplets which are occasionally articulated forcefully. As if to further confirm that the sopranos have abandoned their traditional foreground role, when Morlock finally sets the remainder of the text of the prayer, she uses only the altos, tenors, and basses.
The sopranos are instructed to move quietly offstage and when they do sing (from the distance), they merely intone the syllable “Ah,” as if they were back-up singers, while the cello continues its ecstatic broad-ranged melody. But this is ultimately a vocal piece. As everyone grows quieter, the cello eventually fades to a pianississimo before being silenced all together; the voices have the last word – “requiem.”
The blurring of a clear division between the role of soloist and accompanist happens in some of Morlock’s purely instrumental works as well. In Halcyon (2003), a ravishing single-movement duo for cello and piano, the reversal of the traditional role of accompanying and being accompanied is further heightened by having the pianist (traditionally the accompanist in such a duo) initiate the piece by playing idiomatic cello material.
In the opening minute of the work, the cello does not play at all, but the music for the solo piano begins with a single monophonic line in what would be the cello’s plaintive, uppermost register. When harmonies finally make their first appearance, it is a series of open fifths, which are common cello double-stops. Soon thereafter the cello finally does enter and there initially seems to be a clearly-delineated role between its prominent soloistic rhapsodizing and the less foregrounded piano flourishes.
But at about the halfway point of the piece, the roles get swapped as the cello accompanies the piano’s gradually more intense trills and tremolos with a variety of double stops, including — but not limited to — open fifths, as in the piano’s opening harmony. For the remainder of the work, both instruments engage in a kind of free imitative counterpoint with each other but the cello drops out first, giving the piano the final utterance.
This ambiguity of prominence is also a hallmark of Aeromancy (2011), a 15-minute bi-partite double concerto for two cellos and a chamber orchestra consisting of two oboes, two horns, glockenspiel, and strings.
Unlike a solo concerto, in which an individual is pitted against a community, a double concerto is a more complex sonic metaphor. Since there are two soloists, rather than just one, the juxtaposition is not as clearly delineated. In Morlock’s double concerto, however, the twin cellos (which like the cellos in Exaudi and Halcyon are most often pitched in the highest portion of their range) often act as one, either trading phrases or moving relatively in tandem, sometimes almost creating an aural illusion of a four-armed soloist playing some strange instrumental contraption with two necks that is somehow capable of playing what she has written.
But by pitting the pair of cellos against pairs of oboes and horns, both of which more than occasionally rise to the surface of her orchestration, Morlock further obscures a specific hierarchy of instrumental roles, as she does with her almost soloistic treatment of the unlikely glockenspiel which shimmers for the opening 90 seconds of the piece, engaging in turn with the two solo cellos, the entire string section, and the two oboes; an unsuspecting listener might even briefly imagine this music to be the beginning of a glockenspiel concerto! But then the glockenspiel drops out as the two oboes continue their dialogue which is suddenly even further in the foreground. Though they are now joined by the two cellos, the cellos at first plucked rather than bowed, seemingly as an accompaniment to the oboes. Then suddenly the cellos’ bows return eking out strident melodies across the strings and it is finally clear who the rightful soloists in this concerto are.
For the rest of the first movement, the two cellos remain the primary focus of attention; toward the end their lines interweave in a particularly attractive canonic passage. But in the movement’s closing measures, the glockenspiel briefly returns, capturing center stage once more. The second movement opens pastorally with each cello having a chance at being an individual soloist against lush string harmonies. Then, the oboes, horns, and glockenspiel each spark brief conversations with the cellos as they wander from the top of their range down to their lowest possible note and back up again.
The cellos remain mostly in the upper register for the remainder of the piece, as if suspended, above everyone else. But in the final seconds they drop down again, virtually to the bottom, just barely audible, as the violins, also extremely quiet, soar to their top registers. The cellos drop out while the violins continue tremoloing, though fading to silence, and the glockenspiel quietly offers one final utterance.
There are many other pieces by Jocelyn Morlock that are worth probing further. Her extraordinary Revenant, a 2002 work scored for Baroque flute, Baroque violin, viola da gamba, and harpsichord, simultaneously shows her deep kinship for early music as well as charts a path for how earlier instruments can be an effective part of contemporary musical language. Her 2012 percussion quartet I Love Paul Klee exploits sonority as much as rhythmic interplay while her 2004 Demon Snail, scored for Balinese gamelan, is a completely convincing internalization of centuries-old non-Western musical traditions. Her 2008 cycle Involuntary Love Songs, settings of three poems by Alan Ashton for voice and piano, reveals Morlock to be as sensitive to the English language as she is to timbral details. All in all, Jocelyn Morlock has been composing some of the most satisfying music of this or any century!