Palimpsest Ensemble: Professional Improvisation

What may have been the most unusual and interesting musical performance at PA this year had a total audience of three students. While most Phillips Academy students were busy dressing up, buying flowers and picking up their dates for this year’s Sadie Hawkins Dance, I found myself in the Timken Room of Graves Hall, awaiting the performance of the Palimpsest Ensemble. I do not regret showing up one bit. Junko Simons, the ensemble’s cellist and an educator at Phillips Academy, explained why the night was unusual. Ara Sarkissian, the ensemble’s pianist and composer of one of the pieces, made the night a real event. “Sarkissian is a brilliant composer. It’s really fun to have a composer around, because you are able to talk to them about their piece, and they can share with you their ideas. You can’t really do that with a composer who died two hundred years ago.” Sarkissian, also the pianist of the night, opened with “Kitsch Pieces” by Valentin Silvestrov. “Kitsch Pieces” is an elegant composition. The subtle arpeggios and wavering dynamics made it a very challenging piece. Regardless of its difficulty, Sarkissian drowned the audience in nostalgic and sad emotions. His clear intonation and adept fingers left the audience in awe. Simons then played “In Memoriam,” composed by Sarkissian. Much like the mood of the night as a whole, this piece was eerie, complex and heavy, yet beautiful. It was also challenging and demanded extremely high notes and deliberately made screeches on the cello. A fan of music from the classical era may have heard the deliberate screeches as mistakes, but these techniques were entirely contemporary; rather, they were in perfect harmony with the piece. Following Simons’s fantastic solo, violinist Biliana Voutchkova joined the two musicians, and the three played “Piano Trio” composed by Tigran Mansuryan. All five movements of this piece carried a similar, grave sensation. Voutchkova’s friend Carolyn Forbes said “It was a beautiful visual [piece]. As I listened, I closed my eyes and imagined somewhere like Antarctica. I imagined the frozen, abstract watersheds, freezing and thawing; beautiful natural forms. The tones were incredible.” Another friend of the violinist felt the piece evoked a very contemporary and crazy-urban vision, full of modern volume and speed. One could not help but think of vivid visuals while listening to the their music. What made the concert truly exceptional was the musicians’ improvisation in which they showcased their technical and musical capabilities. After the piano trio, they reassembled and closed the night with an improvisation trio—a spontaneous composition without pre-conceived ideas. It was not completely random, for listeners could find patterns, phrasing and rhythm within its structure. The beginning of the improvisation was breathtaking. The range of Voutchkova’s notes was limitless; she played the absolute highest note, then dropped down to the lowest with tremendous ease and skill, despite its difficulty. Later, she completely lowered her bow and simply strummed the violin like a miniature guitar on her neck. Her fingers moved invisibly to the eye. On the other hand, Simons’s and Sarkissian’s styles were different. Simons frantically plucked the strings and played fiercely. On the piano, Sarkissian bashed chords and jumped up and down the scale with tremendous dexterity. All three players’ demonstrated experience and expertise. Despite having no musical scores to read off of, the musicians’ dynamics were in accord. They slowed down, sped up and became louder or quieter simultaneously. They were so together that it rarely sounded like an improvisation. Instructor in Music Christopher Walter said, “It is rare for classical musicians to improvise. It was really an interesting and exciting part of the concert. They were clearly feeding off of each others’ ideas.” Simons commented, “The best part was the improvisation. I wish we had composed it!” She later added, “Improvisation is not really random, but it’s not really preconceived. More people should listen to it, because it’s not just random garbage. We have to carefully listen to other players and respond. We have something to say, and we have to listen to others as well.” After the performance was over, I left Graves Hall and realized Sadie Hawkins had completely left my thoughts. The Palimpsest Ensemble was, without a doubt, incredible. It was a shame that so few students experienced the show.