by Maggie Molloy
Standard Western music notation is made up of five lines, four spaces, and a whole lot of dots and symbols. But contemporary composer and drummer Qasim Naqvi was looking to make classical music that was a little less traditional.
Perhaps best known as the drummer for the Brooklyn-based modern acoustic trio Dawn of Midi, Naqvi is also an accomplished composer in his own right. In his new album, titled “Preamble,” he combines graphic notation and traditional notational forms to inject a little aleatory into his compositions. Expanding upon the musical innovations of composers like Ligeti and Xenakis, these aleatoric components allow for the musicians to make spontaneous choices within a structured framework.
“Some of the graphic components deal with dynamics and expression, while others deal with duration and rhythm or ranges that are unique to the particular instruments in the ensemble,” Naqvi said. “This symbolic language is fused into a more conventional style of notation.”
“Preamble” is comprised of a series of short works for mixed acoustic instruments. Released this fall on NNA Tapes, the album features the Contemporary Music Ensemble of NYU and Naqvi himself as the conductor. The work was originally commissioned by the media artist Mariam Ghani, the choreographer Erin Ellen Kelly, and the St. Louis Art Museum as a score to a film installation loosely based on China Miéville’s sci-fi noir novel “The City & the City.”
“One aspect of the book involves two cities that essentially inhabit the same space, but because of the mindset of the citizenry and the threat of a Big Brother-type power known as the Breach, they are perceived as two separate geographic spaces,” Naqvi said. “Even though both cities are intertwined, in a sense, the citizens must unsee the people, buildings, and events of the other city. This, among many other plot elements from Miéville’s book, was used as a conceptual framework that was then mapped onto the real places and histories of St. Louis.”
The result is a suite of seven short pieces weaving in and out of time to explore the principles of chance and intention—in both music and history. Clocking in at just over 30 minutes, the scope of Naqvi’s album is nothing if not ambitious. But without a minute wasted, Naqvi manages to explore the power of music in all of its complexity, with special concern taken to St. Louis’s cultural, geographical, and political histories.
“It’s very much about the city’s history and as well the tragic and fracturing events of Ferguson, sort of raising the question of what a city chooses to see and unsee in times of tragedy,” he said.
The first piece on the album is the title track, which immediately introduces Naqvi’s unusual timbral palette: flute, clarinet, strings, vibraphone and piano. Metallic dissonances and abstracted harmonies ebb and flow in a fascinating textural landscape that seems to exist outside of time and space altogether.
It’s followed by the resonant plucking, sparse harmonies, and hollow textures of “Meg Erase Meta,” a piece inspired by St. Louis’s complex network of underground caves—a city beneath a city, so to speak. With modest forces of strings and piano, Naqvi explores these hidden places and the musical magic to be found within them.
But Naqvi also explores the city’s more somber mysteries. The duality and disjointed melodic fragments of “Children of the Drawer” give way to the sharp and, at times, jarring woodwinds of “Imagined Garages,” wherein long pauses punctuate metallic clamor and fragmented melodic flutters.
“Beyond Stars” takes on a more meditative atmosphere, with sliding strings in the lower registers swaying fluidly back and forth across a softly shimmering harmonic backdrop. A more frantic and unsettling “Aero” builds into the drama of the closing piece: “Esc.” Flute, clarinet, and strings swell into different colors and shapes, transforming and shifting across the soundscape until we are left with an unexpected silence.
Throughout “Preamble,” Naqvi colors outside the lines—he takes his bold textural and timbral palette and smears the rules of time, space, and traditional composition. He explores the notion of chance and intention throughout music and throughout history—and ultimately, by leaving some of the musical elements up to the performers, he ensures that this tale of two cities is never told the same way twice.
“What happens as a result is that you have these moments of the music being in control, and then you have moments where the music starts to fall over onto itself,” Naqvi said. “Those types of moments really interest me because they’re inexplicable. You can’t transcribe or write those moments down or recreate them. And there’s something kind of amazing about that.”
PS – for a special bonus, here’s a recent installment of The Takeover, hosted by Qasim Naqvi, introducing all of the tracks on Preamble: