Chasing shadows: the search for the unobtainable

by Maeve Feinberg

And so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.
— Marcel Proust, from Swann’s Way*

    A powerful poignancy accompanies the feeling of absence. At its core, absence is distinct from lack, loss, or deficiency. Absence is itself the absence of presence and within this condition lies the intrinsic verity: that we cannot experience absence without confronting the nature of that which is missing and simultaneously experiencing it in retrospect.

    La sombra de la sombra de un objeto aún no encontrado (The shadow of the shadow of an object not yet found) by Luis Fernando Amaya explores this sensation through the sometimes freeing sometimes paralyzing journey of attempt without resolution. Neither the listener nor the players can ever experience or interact with the object which the composer seeks, nor does the piece offer even an etching, imprint or echo of that object. We see only a circuitous passage that strives to catch a glimpse of that skeletal silhouette. The ever-fragile and protean sound world Luis Fernando creates, often hovering on the edges of silence, then swelling into grating noise which threatens to rupture altogether, invites the listener to experience the second, deeper dimension of a process guided by that which is absent and unknown.

    Through a devised notation that indicates minute variations in finger pressure, bow pressure, bow speed, bow placement and dynamic shape, the four players interact with electronic sounds in a spatial universe where time exists as a series of moments, superimposed over inexorably passing seconds and minutes, rather than as measures of music. The live quartet interacts with electronic sounds that are actually recordings of the same prepared-string quartet. This manifold texture emphasizes the overlaying of time and meta-narrative, while also depicting a sound world that is absolutely limited by its own possibilities and restraints. Each acoustic instrument is prepared with two rattling strips of paper that amplify variations in timbre while tamping the production of pitch, thus creating an unfamiliar and hindered technical environment for the player. While the aforementioned aspects of the music are dictated, many of the techniques exist within ranges of almost imperceptible change, which forces the players to create and react to stimuli that constantly feel nearly invisible and always just out of reach. There is both stillness and kinesis woven into the music, which speaks to the idea of a shadow of a shadow: that which reflects a reflection, or is too diaphanous and delicate to be detected by the eye, the ear, or the touch.

    There is something deeply compelling about things in life that occur, not as evidence of some tangible event or thing but as the impression of that evidence: especially when the desired object is an ideal, one that grants not only freedom from the sociological constraints but respite from the artistic onus of shadow seeking. The ahistorical nature of the object illustrates the very impossibility of its existence, completely exempt from past charge or burden. Without the projection of our linked sets of collective memory, it would hold no meaning. In this way, much like the sound world of this composition, the object at hand is severely limited by its own nature. Even if located, it could never be perceived outside the individual and collective memories from which we construct the world. The lambent hush generated by the confluence of quartet and electronics provides the listener with only brief, transient flickers of clarity, and even those moments of lucidity depict an entity shrouded in its own abstraction. This search for and exploration of the unobtainable creates an experience that is both deeply personal and intensely universal. We have all experienced that tenuous specter of a thought, or a feeling, or a reality that is by definition unattainable. 

    La sombra de la sombra de un objeto aún no encontrado scrutinizes the process of going beyond that which is palpable. It is the memory of a particularly intense episode of déjà vu, or the acrid warmth imprinted in pavement hours after the sun has set; the shapeless weight of someone standing imperceptibly over your left shoulder; the contoured, human presence of furniture as you blindly traverse a familiar space at night; waking from a dream that slips through your fingers like water until it is just a faint suggestion of another realm. Or, when someone lights a brief match in the darkness and the imprint of what was just illuminated stays on your retina for a second, like a frozen snapshot. Even after you blink it away, a remnant of something hovers on the walls of your eyelids, a gradually receding ember of light, or a shadow of a shadow.


* This quote—in Spanish—is also the epigraph of La sombra de la sombra de un objeto aún no encontrado, written for and premiered by Spektral Quartet in February, 2017.