The idea for Transcendent Pathways first came to composer Mark Ackerley earlier this year during his participation in a Personalized Healthcare Summit organized by the Cleveland Clinic. Since the United States is the only country in the world that refers to healthcare as an “industry,” the very name of this meeting was a bold move. The prevailing emphasis on technology, whether it involves sophisticated (and, by inevitable corollary, expensive) hardware or new generations of “knowledge-based” and “social” software, has reduced the number of medical practitioners who honor the social dimension of their work with a commitment to interpersonal engagement to a pathetically small minority. (A market-based philosophy that reduces all instances of medical practice to “billable hours” has no room for unquantifiable personalization.)
While visiting the Cleveland Clinic, Ackerley learned that they invited concert musicians to play for their patients five days a week. The idea behind this seemed to be that “treatment” was more than just “fighting a malady” with drugs and equipment; it also involved the restoration of the patient’s personal sense of well-being. Bringing music to the patient was one way to address the well-being of recovery that extends beyond eliminating the malady. It addresses that the patient has a social dimension that extends beyond the condition of the physical body or even the psychology of bodily experience. Engagement with music is a variation on the experiences of other such institutions that have seen the value of engagement with pets.
The result of this insight was that Ackerley founded Transcendent Pathways to provide such opportunities to bring live music performances into healthcare institutions on a broader scale. In other words Transcendent Pathways is committed to raising funds that will pay for musicians giving such performances. Donations are tax deductible, and Transcendent Pathways has received the pledge of a matching grant from the Brin/Wojcicki Foundation. Last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), Ackerley introduced this idea by discussing it in conjunction with an Inaugural Concert.
Through this concert one discovered that there was a personal; side to his commitment. The program concluded with the world premiere of Ackerley’s own composition “Agony/Ecstasy.” This was dedicated to the memory of his grandmother, who suffered from Type One Bipolar Disorder and ultimately committed suicide. The music itself was a reflection on both the mental affliction and the act of suicide.
On the surface the title might lead one to believe that this would be a latter-day reflection on Richard Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration;” but that would be a superficial distortion. True, there was an extended violin solo at the core of this composition, performed by Liana Bérubé; and Strauss tended to draw upon the solo violin frequently as a rhetorical device. However, “Agony/Ecstasy” was more a landscape of sensitively-designed instrumental textures, rather than an explicitly episodic tone poem. The music was less an account of actions (such as suicide) and more one of “third-party” reflections on those actions.
The performance was given by the full resources of the Magik*Magik Orchestra conducted by Nicole Paiement. Paiement appreciated the extent to which “Agony/Ecstasy” was based primarily on its sonorities. Her balancing of the sections of the ensemble was always judicious. She did not try to overemphasize the expressiveness of Ackerley’s score, basically allowing the score to pull its own weight through the clarity of her account of it. Before the performance began, Ackerley had spoken about how music can break through the loneliness that comes with affliction. Easing that social pain of loneliness is basically the social mission of Transcendent Pathways; and “Agony/Ecstasy” emerged as a case in point for the role that performed (rather than merely recorded) music can play in treating affliction from a social, as well as a medical, perspective.
The first half of the program offered two chamber music compositions, each of which also served as a case study for establishing a social bridge to the afflicted mind. The evening began with Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” (mirror in the mirror), composed in 1974 and scored for violin (Bérubé again) and piano (Jeff LaDeur). This is a short but elaborate piece of counterpoint in which the melodic line of the violin weaves through three layers of independent voices on different registers on the piano keyboard. The upper and lower registers are defined through isolated notes that connect over extended durations, making for one of the best examples of what Pärt has called his “tintinnabular” style.
This brief and quietly introspective account of Pärt was followed by a staged performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s Opus 21 Pierrot Lunaire performed by Nonsemble 6: Amy Foote (soprano), Justin Lee (flute/piccolo), Anna-Christina Phillips (clarinet/bass clarinet), Kevin Rogers (violin/viola), Ian Scarfe (piano), and Anne Suda (cello). One can easily say that the surreal poems of Albert Giraud that Schoenberg has set (in Otto Erich Hartleben’s German translation) constitute a literary penetration of the darkness of an afflicted mind. Nonsemble 6 has made Opus 21 their “signature” composition. (They first formed as a group when they were all SFCM students preparing the work for an end-of-term performance.) They play with a technical confidence through which the many dark details of both the text and Schoenberg’s setting of that text emerge with striking clarity. Staging was confined primarily to costumes and makeup, but it did require that the players spend much of their time in motion. (That included Scarfe as a performer, even if his piano does not move.) As a result, only Scarfe plays from a score, while the others have memorized their parts.
It is unclear whether or not such music would have a palliative effect in the healthcare scenarios that Ackerley has envisaged; but Pierrot Lunaire, particularly in this performance by Nonsemble 6, clearly demonstrates the nature of that affliction that Ackerley wishes to address through music.