Concrete Currents (2022)

Concerto for oboe and chamber ensemble

fl(=a.fl), ob, cl(=b.cl) | vln, vla, vc | perc, hp, pno 

Commissioned by Collage New Music, Frank Epstein, founder, and David Hoose, music director
Premiere: Collage New Music, David Hoose, director, and Peggy Pearson, oboe
                       Concert I: Currents and Riddles
- October 16, 2022
                       Killian Hall - Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA USA

Duration: 12:00

Listen

Performed live by Collage New Music, David Hoose, music director, Peggy Pearson, oboe

Killian Hall, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA

© 2022 BLACKBURN ARTS (ASCAP)

"Luke Blackburn’s 'Concrete Currents' is a fresh, imaginatively conceived example of what one might call eco-program music — that is, music that dramatizes a story from nature, in this case, the epic journey of anadromous fish (which are born in freshwater, live their lives in saltwater, and swim back upstream to freshwater in order to spawn). The “Concrete” in its title references the man-made obstructions that have consistently impeded this journey and imperiled various species. Scored for a mixed ensemble of winds, strings, percussion, harp, and piano, Blackburn’s work resourcefully evokes this dramatic migration through vivid, kinetic music and sonorities that often take on a silvery sheen suggesting, appropriately enough, the iridescence of fish skin."

"Luke Blackburn’s (b.1992) Concrete Currents 'refers to the struggle of anadromous fish battling through human-constructed concrete structures such as dams.' Collage’s extreme high register notes from woodwinds and piano astonishingly portrayed fishes’ wave-like rhythms. The middle section slowed to blends of lower and higher structures of the harmonic series. A huge and noisy buildup suddenly swept in, ending the piece—the dam?"

— Boston Musical Intelligencer (2022)

"Concrete Currents’ concept is simple enough. Swirling scalar figures (descending in the first movement, ascending in the third) and dense textures—aggressive ones, too, in the finale—mark the music’s outer sections. In between comes a gorgeous, floating slow movement.

On Sunday night, oboist Peggy Pearson etched the latter’s mellifluous falling lines with glowing warmth. While her first-movement efforts were often swallowed up in the ensemble’s busy peregrinations, her execution of the finale’s fast, upward-drifting scales were bright and nimble.

CNM dug into Blackburn’s vigorous writing—the dry-toned start to the first movement and the Harmonium-esque transition into the finale were particularly well done, But it was the haunting middle section, with threatening tam-tam strokes and glinting piano/harp figurations countering drifting chord progressions that lingered most in the memory."

— Boston Classical Review (2022)

Program Note

The idea for Concrete Currents grew out of a personal interest in anadromous fish inspired by a multi-week kayaking trip in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. Anadromous fish are born in freshwater but spend most of their lives in saltwater, only returning to freshwater to spawn. Examples include several species of trout, striped bass, sturgeon, and probably the best-known of all anadromous fish, salmon. After seeing numerous salmon on their journey upstream during my excursion, I wondered why this was not a phenomenon I could observe with Atlantic salmon near my home in Boston. After some deep diving, I learned that Atlantic salmon used to be plentiful throughout New England, but since the industrialization of the nineteenth century, many species have been declared extirpated from numerous native habitats due 

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Premiere with Collage New Music, David Hoose (right), (Oct 16, 2022) in Killian Hall, MIT. Photo by Conrad Kline. 

to logging and soil erosion, as well as dam and mill construction. The title “Concrete Currents” refers to the struggle of anadromous fish battling through human-constructed concrete structures such as dams.

 

The first movement, Downstream, opens with a delicate ripple in the piano. Soon after, the oboe enters—small and fragmented. These two- and three-note fragments continue to grow in timbre, texture, and technique. Suddenly, descending scales and arpeggios begin flooding the space, supporting the strings (using E-flat as an anchor) as they ride the strengthening stream. Downstream continues developing all of the opening musical fragments, eventually cascading into a wild current. Much like whitewater rapids, the river is moving with force, hardly allowing anyone in its current the opportunity to notice a motive before it is swept away. After a brief moment of calm, the current begins to intensify; this time, however, engulfing the whole ensemble, crashing into the vast ocean.

 

As the frothy brackish water begins to dissipate, the Anadromous fish finds itself in the vast open ocean. The strings, alto flute, bass clarinet, and tam-tam fluctuate with one another. Burgeoning harmonies move in and out of sync, with the tide. The oboe is drifting at its own pace, allowing the ocean’s current to guide its journey, gravitating towards E-natural. Once immersed in this seascape, the harp and piano act like small bits of sediment that reflect the sun’s rays. 

 

Without pause, nascent energy emerges—first in the viola, then in the violin. Slowly, the ensemble summons the courage to face the perilous journey Upstream. Before long, ascending scales erupt as the oboe pushes forward. The scale, avoiding resolution, continues fighting itself, constantly maneuvering around obstacles such as the accents in the bass clarinet, cello, and bass drum. Midway, the oboe finds itself battling against a dam of sound. Large punctuations from three ensemble groupings (flute, bass clarinet, and strings; the harp and piano; and the harp and bass drum). Frantically, the oboe forces its way through the sound masses, only to find the journey is not over. More ascending scales in the harp and piano quietly rip away from the disruptive bass drum. Eventually, the flute, bass clarinet, and strings are asked to play the scale as fast as possible, crashing into the piano’s mass. The oboe, continuously growing stronger, is able to fight through the flood of notes and the piano’s aggressive punches, bursting out of the ensemble on its final assent to E#. 

—Luke Blackburn (2022)