Performer Spotlight Series – Mimi Stillman

This week’s edition of the Performer Spotlight Series focuses on East Wind by Shulamit Ran, performed in the below clip by flutist Mimi Stillman. A picturesque and dramatic composition, East Wind incorporates non-traditional techniques and extreme range juxtapositions to emulate the unpredictable and changeable nature of wind.

wind-blowing

Shulamit Ran is the winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize in composition with her symphonic work “Symphony” (dedicated to Ralph Shapey) and has received numerous other fellowships and grants from institutions such as the Guggenheim and Koussevitzky Foundations. Born in Israel, Ran moved to New York at the age of 14. She studied piano and composition at The Mannes College of Music in New York, NY and between 1990 and 1997 was appointed as Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony as part of the Meet the Composer Orchestra Residences Program, hosted by Maestro Daniel Barenboim. Ran also served as Senior Composer-in-Residence with the Lyric Opera Chicago between 1994 and 1997. Ran presently serves as Professor of Music at the University of Chicago where she has taught since 1973.

East Wind was commissioned by the National Flute Association in 1987 and dedicated to flautist Karen Monson, author and music critic of the Chicago Daily News during the 1970s and host at WFMT, the Chicago classical-music radio station, who died in 1988. The following description of the work taken from the Music History Resource Center http://www.cengage.com/music/book_content/049557273X_wrightSimms/assets/more/80_Ran.html illustrates the creative and unusual composition techniques employed by Ran to create the illusion of wind racing though the atmosphere:

“While there is no single controlling tonal center, Ran suggests a temporary tonic at every return of the opening melodic gesture, which begins and ends on the same pitch and includes neighbor-like motions up a half step and down a whole step. Contrasting with this more stable material are a developmental series of virtuoso episodes that tend to outline more dissonant intervals such as tritones, minor ninths and major sevenths. Some of these gestures also return, both at pitch and transposed, as they continue to evolve in terms of rhythm and range. A third recurring motive, based on a repeated-note figure also acts as a unifying factor. Perhaps the most traditional aspect of the work overall is its dramatic profile, reaching a well defined climax about three quarters of the way through, followed by a gradual decline in register, tempo, and dynamics to the closing instruction, “al niente.”   In her notes for East Wind Ran supplies detailed directions, particularly concerning the sense of freedom and ongoing flow desired of the performer. This results not only from many changes of tempo and a lack of meter signature and barlines, but also the variation in pitch produced by lip and finger bends. Other special effects include key clicks and usage of “spit tongue with no tone” as well as the employment of the entire range of the flute, from the B below middle C to the D# more than three octaves higher. The combination of such pyrotechniques with arresting expression marks, such as soulful, brilliant, aggressive, lethargic, excitedly, with growing urgency, declamatory, emphatic, and warm yet calm suggests a deeply felt elegiac tribute to the dedicatee, marked by wild fluctuations in mood that at the same time seem perfectly in order.”

 

 

Mimi Stillman’s impressive and fluid technique in this video (namely at 1:40) help create the illusion of swirling wind which is also captured in her patient yet captivating glissandi, particularly at 1:02. The tone quality that Ms. Stillman achieves throughout the clip is not only breathtaking but also somehow emulates the sound of a non-western instrument (perhaps a simple wooden folk flute or a Native American tribal instrument). This is emphasized in part through the economical use of vibrato in slower moving passages (namely at 2:45). Finally, the way that Ms. Stillman lifts her embrochure and the end of accents (particularly at 3:55) removes much of the harshness of heavy lines written in unforgiving tesaturas. Rather than employing the traditional down and inward postural movements to essentially “push” accents out of the texture, this up and outward motion gives clarity and grace to a sometimes cliché compositional device.

The element in this performance that does not quite work, and rather distracts from some of the stronger, more subtle interpretative techniques, is the overly dramatic body movements employed particularly at the ends of fermatas (example: 3:25). This is quite pronounced at moments where extreme high notes are highlighted against a rather harsh tone. Although many of the movements used in this clip are a bit overdone, the transitions between postural changes fit the character of the work, particularly at the end of the performance. In general, however, Ms. Stillman essentially remains on the same spot on the stage and does not misuse the stage for dramatic effect. These makes for a compact yet creative performance that draws the attention at times away from the performer and onto the music itself.

 

I must emphasize again that much of this is based on my observations and interpretation. I urge those of you reading this blog to please add your own impressions of this performance in the comments below.

 

Above all I think we can all learn new ways to approach contemporary music by observing the intricacies used by contemporary flute artists.

 

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