paw-marks in wet cement (ii) (2015–18)

paw-marks in wet cement (ii) was written for and first performed by Wilhem Latchoumia and the Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain in March 10, 2016. The second, unfinished version of the piece was performed at the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2017, and the final, complete version was played by Wilhem Latchoumia and L’Instant Donné at the Festival d’Automne 2018.

Commission: Aide à l’écriture d’oeuvres musicales originales 2014

Duration: 20′

Programm note:

If you have just poured a slab of wet concrete, probably the last thing you want to see is an animal’s paw-prints running across it. But if you are able to step back – or perhaps if it is not your cement – it is possible to see a poetic moment in those unwanted indentations.

The image comes, as it does for many of Clara Iannotta’s pieces, from the late Irish poet Dorothy Molloy, who died in 2004. Iannotta’s title comes from ‘Dog-kite’, from the third of three posthumous collections of Molloy’s poetry, Long-distance swimmer. A memorial to a lively, beloved pet who now whizzes ‘between the stars’, the poem ends and grounds itself suddenly with this picture: ‘She left her paw-marks/in the wet cement.’

It is a tactile image; we can imagine feeling our own palms or feet sinking too. It transforms an accident (a dog running somewhere they shouldn’t) into a feature (the permanent mark of a brief moment of life). And it is a way of registering something that has happened – like a scar, a ruin or an echo – and of a life that is no more.

This is fertile artistic ground. Iannotta’s piece is only obliquely about the sort of loss that is at the heart of ‘Dog-kite’ – and she often warns against reading her pieces too literally against their inspirations – but it is full of the traces and after-images that marks in cement imply. Written for the French pianist Wilhem Latchoumia and the Ensemble Orchestral Contemporain, paw-marks in wet cement (ii) is a piano concerto of sorts, but an under-stated one; the composer describes wanting to lighten ‘the incredibly heavy history’ of the genre.

At its centre is still a piano, although one prepared with singing bowls, tape, magnets, an ebow, fishing line, a fork and even a small vibrator, wrapped in aluminium foil, so that it almost never sounds as a normal piano would. As well as the pianist, the two percussionists are also needed at times to play it. And yet at no point does it seek to dominant or to lead, as it might in a typical concerto. Instead, its unusual and sometimes bizarre sounds diffuse through and animate the rest of the ensemble.

The piece may be read in three main sections. After the opening pages introduce its main ‘themes’ – an acidic haze of singing bowls, ebows and string glissandi, and a strange interplay of wah-wah brass and muted piano clunks – the central section develops these in increasingly reduced, abstract ways, before a long third section opens up a space that seems entirely new, characterised by the liquid twittering of gelinotte bird-calls and the ratchet sound of a Waldteufel, a small friction drum. There is an almost spiritual dimension to this section, which shifts the work’s centre of gravity away from any definitive climax, such as one might expect from a concerto – a cadenza, for example, or a concluding flourish from the soloist – to dwell on the music’s afterlife, those parts outside the traditional structural frame. Rather like those paw-marks, Iannotta’s piece shows us an inverted memory; not the thing itself, but the mark it leaves and everything around it.
© Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2018

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