Patterns of Plants (Sarah Cahill Performs Mamoru Fujieda)

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Composer David Lang was right when he said to pianist Sarah Cahill, “You should be playing Mamoru’s work.” Lang was speaking of the work of composer Mamoru Fujieda who, “in a world that rewards virtuosity and showmanship, chooses to write music of simplicity and delicacy,” as Cahill so justly notes.

I’ve admired Cahill’s elegant pianism for some time now. Her playing reminds me of no one so much as Marian McPartland. Like McPartland, Cahill never gets in the way, but allows the music to speak directly through her fingers on the keys. Though I knew little about Fujieda’s work, when I learned that Cahill had a new CD out, I was primed take heed.

The pieces included in Fujieda’s Patterns of Plants are literally derived from the sounds of plants: the raw materials of the compositions are comprised of “electrical fluctuations on the surface of the leaves of plants . . . converted . . . into sound . . .”. I am ordinarily a skeptic when it comes to this sort of thing, but when Cahill opened the door with her graceful performance, I happily walked in.

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Listening List

Mamoru Fujieda: Patterns of Plants, the Sixteenth Collection – Pattern A (Sarah Cahill, piano)

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Credits: The quotations in the first paragraph are from the CD liner notes. The remaining quotations may be found here. The photographs, taken at Innisfree Garden on October 17, 2014, are mine.

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14 thoughts on “Patterns of Plants (Sarah Cahill Performs Mamoru Fujieda)

  1. Friko

    The music to me is hypnotically monotonous or monotonously hypnotic, I am not at all sure which way round I would say. I have no idea how long I could listen to the playing before I’d succumb to either a bout of major irritation or let it lull me into full-blown meditation mode.

    ..electrical fluctuation on the surface of the leaves of plants ….. ? Are they really as unvarying as this? If they exist at all, that is.

    Heavens, I’ve got to get away from the ‘pianism’ before my head explodes.

    Lovely Innisfree, nature does it so much better.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: Nothing wrong with a full-blown meditation mode now, is there? We can all use that from time to time, surely. I had this music very much in mind as I took the photographs of Innisfree, and it enabled me to identify patterns in ways I hadn’t before. So I don’t see this as music vs. nature, but rather the music as an accompaniment to the natural world. The music is subtle, but to my mind certainly not monotonous. I do think, though, that it may reveal itself best in smaller increments. Unless, of course, one is wanting to go into full-blown meditation mode . . .

  2. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Sue,
    the music appeals very much to me – so clear, so vibrant, so simple.
    I believe a lot about plants (them having communication from the first tree attacked by vicious buggers giving warning to the last rows which turn their leaves bitter; believing in plants feeling fear and shrink a bit when you come with scissors – and even that they understood when I reprimanded them in my garden when they were the third year without a bloom. So why should I not believe in the sound of plants? Of course my inquisitive nature would like to know: which plant? At what season? How many?
    The photos again so alluring – great autumn glory, each year anew and different (that is the big surprise for me).

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: I’m so pleased you enjoyed the music. I, too, like its clarity, which is brought out so well by Cahill’s performance. The music, as well as Fujieda’s compositional process inspired me, when I went to Innisfree, to see what was around me in a different way than I ordinarily do.

      I, too, am curious about your questions. Here, at least, is a little bit more about the process Fujieda used to gather his musical material and create his compositions: “Working with the “Plantron,” a device created by botanist and artist Yūji Dōgane, the composer measured electrical fluctuations on the surface of the leaves of plants, and converted the data thus obtained into sound using the Max programming system. Through a process he has likened to searching “in a deep forest” for “beautiful flowers and rare butterflies,” he listened for musical patterns, and used them as the basis for composing short pieces, which he then grouped into collections reminiscent of Baroque dance suites.” (From the Pinna Records site here: http://www.pinnarecords.com/products/530282-mamoru-fujieda-patterns-of-plants-sarah-cahill-piano).

      We’ve had a particularly beautiful autumn here; I’m only sorry that Innisfree has now closed for the season, so there’s no chance to see how the season progresses from that beautiful spot. Fall is, to my mind, the most beautiful time of year up where we live.

      1. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

        Dear Sue,
        thank you. It sounds a bit like “aura-photography” to me, I was always a bit sceptical about that – I mean: to get a photo of a butterfly is very, very difficult – but to imagine that he gets the electronic waves from it: that sounds like a wonder – and wonders have to be believed, not scrutinized.
        PS: At the moment I can’t enter my blog nor my Google+ profile – “500. Error”. Well, as I do a Facebook- abstinence, this gives me even more time to enjoy autumn.

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          Britta: That was exactly the basis for my comment in the post that I am ordinarily a skeptic on such things, too, but in this case, first of all, I love to listen to Cahill play piano, and second, I did like the idea that Fujieda searched through the sounds gathered to pick out patterns from which to develop compositions. Made me think of composers doing field work for folk tunes and bird songs, that sort of thing. I would enjoy seeing a demonstration of how the sounds were gathered. (I love your comment, by the way, that “wonders have to be believed, not scrutinized.”

  3. Mark Kerstetter

    Interesting comparison to Marian McPartland. I concur, there’s a similar loving touch there. Also something almost Satie-like in the melodic line. Wonderful photos.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: “Loving touch” is a great way to put it. I’m pleased you hear the similarity, too. I’m sure it’s also related to the kind of music Cahill plays with which I’m most familiar, some of which is also jazz-inflected, like Kyle Gann’s Private Dances and Terry Riley’s Be Kind to One Another. I enjoyed taking those photos and am really pleased you enjoy looking at them, too.

  4. David N

    I wanted to hear the piece before I responded, thinking it was longer than it turned out to be. Well, the repeated theme is rather good, what’s done with it sometimes interesting (the descant is very fine), sometimes not, but it knows when to stop. Not so very different from a Passacaglia movement. On the strength of this, I’d be happy to hear more of Fujieda, a name new to me.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I’m so pleased you’ve weighed in here with some observations on the music. “But it knows when to stop” is such an important point. I also particularly appreciate that you called attention to the descant, a term in music new to me. I suspect your observations on this piece offer a good way to think about the rest of Patterns of Plants, too.

      1. David N

        ‘Descant’ has been with me since childhood, viz the embroidering top line on the last verses of ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. Not to mention the instrument we learned before the piano, the descant recorder (a notch above the treble…).

        Anyway, for me this piece just didn’t get monotonous. Though I thought at first – pace Mark’s observation – that we were in for something like Satie’s Vexations, one line played over 18 hours…

        1. Susan Scheid Post author

          David: I’ll be listening for descants everywhere now! And I solemnly promise you I will never post anything that goes on for 18 hours (or anything close to it). That could definitely get vexatious, to say the least. And as for performing it, I’ll never forget–even though I wasn’t there, but just seeing a little bit of it–an extremely hot day in NYC when the redoubtable percussionist Amy Garapic (part of Contemporaneous) spear-headed an outdoor Wall Street marathon of Vexations. Here she is on vibraphone, with two colleagues on marimbas, performing Takemitsu’s Rain Tree at Bard. http://youtu.be/2PL5T9cgpJA

  5. shoreacres

    As we say, this is the same, but different: a Supernova Sonata which is “a musical rendition of supernovae events in a small part of the sky about as large as 16 full moons.” There’s a good explanation of the process that led to the music on the linked page. At least the basic point is understandable.

    From the plants to the skies, I can’t help but think of the words of the old hymn: “All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.” It is just a bit — what? something — to think of those words written so many years before assorted technologies made visible and audible processes that only had been imagined.

    A blogger I used to follow, Meera Lee Sethi, wrote a fascinating account of the trials and tribulations of the plants among us – how they communicate pain, how certain plants defend one another, and so on. I can’t find it or her just now, but if I do, I’ll link the article. In some ways it was as new-age-ish as this music seems to me, but in other ways, it seemed perfectly reasonable.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Thanks for the link! This, in turn, reminds me of John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis,which the wonderful Nadia Guent, who has participated in a performance of the piece, wrote about here: https://prufrocksdilemma.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/guest-post-musical-stargazing-with-nadia-ghent-and-john-cage/. Love your allusion to “music of the spheres,” too. Fujieda’s music did strike me as meditative, though I don’t associate it with the little “new age” music I’ve heard. (I’ll confess it tends to be what’s playing in the background in upstate art studios that sell things like scented candles and crystals!) I wouldn’t actually be interested in learning something of how the pieces were constructed if the end result wasn’t “music to my ears.” A friend of mine once put a sign up on her blog, “I like it, now what is it.” I loved that, and in listening, that’s how I usually proceed. In the “what is it” category, as I think I’ve noted earlier, I particularly liked the idea of his foraging through the plant sound world to find musical patterns on which to build his compositions. That reminded me a good bit of Messiaen, among others. The results are, of course, VERY different.

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