Sounds Heard: Mary Ellen Childs—Wreck

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Wreck
by Mary Ellen Childs
(Innova 844)

Would I have been able to smell the sea salt in the air quite so powerfully while listening to a recording of Mary Ellen Childs’s Wreck if I hadn’t already seen the image of a man face down in the water that graces its cover? Possibly not, but knowing that at the outset, I swear I could feel the waves crashing against the boat and a brisk ocean breeze hitting my face as the small ensemble of clarinet, violin, cellos, and percussion cut a sonic path forward through the piece’s opening measures.

That’s not to say that the work, originally commissioned to accompany an evening-length piece by Carl Flink’s Black Label Movement dance company, paints a strictly narrative portrait. While a recording of waves and instrumental lines that mimic gull cries quite evocatively accents the nearly hour-long score, its overall character extends well beyond these nautical touches.

Set inside the last watertight compartment of a recently sunk ore boat resting at the bottom of Lake Superior, Wreck explores the depths of physical and psychological endurance and human fortitude in the face of impending and inevitable loss. Wreck expresses cooperation and violence, compassion and obsession, and the ultimate question of how we face death. —Wreck liner notes

Based on the photos and teaser video alone, I wish I had had the opportunity to see the full production. With the music now available as a stand-alone recording, I can at least appreciate Childs’s contribution: an original score for which she was recognized with a 2008 Minnesota SAGE Dance Award.

Childs is no stranger to the integration of movement and images within the frame of her music. The percussion ensemble she founded—CRASH—is a poster child for this approach (further examples here) and the work she wrote for the string quartet ETHEL incorporates the drama of a visual element—video projections in this case, rather than the more directly physical player interaction that CRASH involves. As a glance down her projects page confirms, what the eye consumes plays a significant roll in her artistic outlook.

When all that is taken away, however, I found it fascinating to hear how much of that sense of movement and visual character is carried strictly within the notes and rhythms of her musical language. Divorced from the dancers on the stage, the music captured on the recording still knits its own gripping connections though its movement-conjuring phrases—from moments of graceful swaying to heart-pounding drive and shrieking terror. According to information provided by Innova, Childs wrote the score after much of the choreography was complete, fitting her work to the movement like a film score. On the disc, it is presented as 18 aural “scenes” featuring excellent performances by Pat O’Keefe (clarinets), Laura Harada (violin), Michelle Kinney (cello), Jacqueline Ultan (cello), and Peter O’Gorman (percussion). I would be hard-pressed to point out any one portion that stands above the rest, as the real power of the work is in the overarching sum of the parts. Still, sections such as the brightly ringing clamor of the percussion-driven “Spirit Duet” definitely make a lasting impression.

Knowing the fictional setting of the dance piece, I felt a clear connection to the depth of emotion—the fear, the anger, the questioning, the resignation—that a group of people facing death together might experience. Of course this was my own listener’s fiction, but especially as the work proceeds through later moments of suffocating delirium only to conclude in a space of haunting emptiness, Childs’s presentation of these ideas in sound became an ever more powerful listening experience.

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