Ingram Marshall: Dissolving Boundaries

By Ariel Swartley

Ingram Marshall was a college student in the early 1960s when he heard his first piece of electronic music. It was Edgard Varèse’s Poème électronique, created for the pavilion Le Corbusier designed at the Brussels World’s Fair. Marshall was so excited by the French composer’s use of taped sounds--echoing bells, mechanical plonks--as sculptural masses, he later told writer Edward Strickland, that he turned up the radio as loud as he could and stuck his head in.

Marshall’s own works, though nominally minimalist, prompt a similar, whole-body response. Whether composed entirely on tape with voices looping through layers of ambient sound–a fog horn, skis swishing through snow—or based on more traditional melodies and scored for string quartets,  the sense they convey is visceral and immediate. The room has suddenly gotten bigger.

The spaciousness is evident even when his subject is confinement. Two pieces--Alcatraz, named for the federal penitentiary and Eberbach, for a 12th century German monastery later used as an asylum--will be part of the program at Montalvo November 21. Marshall describes both works as “musico-visual operas,” the libretto in each case being a set of slowly dissolving images-- landscapes, building details--by Jim Bengston, an American photographer now based in Norway. Friends since college, the two men share a penchant for discovering mystery in the ordinary—the ethereal cloud formed by a car’s exhaust, the familiar cadences of a weather report delivered in a foreign language.

Their Alcatraz evokes both the brutal reality of the building’s former purpose—it closed in 1963—and the haunted beauty in its decay. No one experiencing the piece feels entirely innocent. The thunderous clang of a cell door and the rippling arpeggios both invite regret. Eberbach offers another kind of dialogue between anxious spirit and enclosing walls, and Marshall underscores the connection between the two works by referring to Eberbach as a “Penitential Vision.

From the beginning, old and new have swirled together in Marshall’s music. The first of his compositions that he played in public presented a young woman’s voice technically manipulated in the ways tape makes possible—spliced, filtered, sped up and slowed down. The words she was speaking and singing were William Blake’s Jerusalem, written at the beginning of the 19th century.

In the 1970s, Marshall traveled to Java and Bali to study their gamelan orchestras. This ancient tradition with its non-western intervals, instruments that include gongs and bamboo flutes, and its compositional forms, stressing repetition and rhythmic variation, derived from the music’s association with ritual and drama, gave Marshall--as it had John Cage and Lou Harrison before him--a new palette of sonorities and sonic approaches.

Some of these are evident in Fog Tropes II, both in its initial instrumentation and in its fluid adaptability. As Fog, composed on tape as a sound score for a San Francisco performance artist, it layered the city’s foghorns and bird cries with a gamelan flute. Marshall scored a second version, Fog Tropes for a brass sextet, a few years later. Fog Tropes II, part of Saturday’s program, is the string version written for the Kronos Quartet. In each, the piece, like its namesake, offers the simultaneous sense of being surrounded and freed.

Like Bengston’s recent photographs of such highway staples as motels and scrubland, Marshall’s Evensongs represent a return to home ground. Based on two protestant hymns of his childhood, Now the Day Is Over and Abide with Me, the piece mixes taped elements—including a chorus of music boxes--with a live string quartet. Once part of a ubiquitous American soundtrack, the melodies in Marshall’s six variations shift in and out of focus like half-recalled memories. Both songs are Victorian era meditations on evening. Now the Day was written as a children’s hymn; Abide, whose author knew himself to be ill, is a frequent funeral piece. Between these two aspects—the rosy end of day and the gloomy end of life—Marshall’s music stakes out a tremulous middle ground. There, in the shimmering twilight, with echoes of his own child’s voice on the tape, innocence and experience blur.

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