Ran: East Wind Program Notes

Israeli composer Shulamit Ran (b. 1949) currently serves as the Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Music at University of Chicago. Her many accolades include the Pulitzer Prize, two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships, commissions from the Koussevitsky Foundation, and a seven-year tenure as Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony. Born in Tel Aviv, Ran moved to the United States at age 14 to pursue compositional studies at the Mannes College of Music with Norman Dello-Joio. Upon first joining the faculty of University of Chicago in 1973, she encountered composer Ralph Shapey who she cites as an important teacher and mentor.

By examining the compositional style of Ralph Shapey, his influence on Shulamit Ran’s music becomes more apparent. Before the “New Complexity” label emerged in the 1980s to categorize the music of Brian Ferneyhough and Michael Finnisey, Shapey exhibited his own brand of complexity. In a 1977 New York Times article, Shapey stated, “I refuse to accept the word impossible…that which the mind of man can conceive, can be done.” Regarding his compositions, Shapey remarked that he had been called a “‘Radical traditionalist…’ The melodies are disjunct and dissonant; they contain atonal harmonies and extremes in register, dynamics and textural contrast. Yet the musical structures are grandly formed and run the gamut of dramatic gestures.”

Ran’s music contains traits from both Shapey’s compositional style and the New Complexity, a genre marked by atonality, complex and ametric rhythmic notation, extended techniques, microtonality, disjunct melodic contour, and detailed articulation realized through acoustic instruments and live performers. East Wind (1988) for solo flute embodies many of these characteristics in addition to a high sense of drama. The title appears to reference the Biblical “east wind” of the Old Testament, a probable source of inspiration based on Ran’s early compositional explorations as described in an interview for Flute Talk Magazine:

Initially, I either sang my songs, or composed small piano pieces. Then I started to do these full productions where I would play the piano, sing, and in some cases narrate a particular subject of interest. These were things I learned in school, tales of the Old Testament of the Bible, some really incredible stories that I was drawn towards, with tragic underpinnings and epic content.

Both Ran’s East Wind and the Biblical “east wind” imply this juxtaposition of tragedy and epic content. In the Bible, the east wind first appears in the Book of Genesis as the subject of the Pharaoh’s premonition dream. In the Book of Exodus, this premonition is realized as the powerful east wind brings the plague of locusts and parts the Red Sea. Ran’s East Wind exploits the full range of the flute (B3-D#7), employs extended techniques such as pitch bends, key clicks, and the percussive “spit tongue” articulation, and contains complex, non-metered rhythms with angular melodies that push the technical capabilities of the performer.

Once again, I have to cite a performance by Mimi Stillman. It is certainly one of the most virtuosic performances of this work on YouTube.

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