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A Night With Paul Griffiths Perched Atop My Shoulders

The star of the evening, so rudely eclipsed

The star of the evening, so rudely eclipsed

Bwog’s resident music critic and your very own brave patron of percussion, Henry Litwhiler, braved the Miller Theatre’s Composer Portraits Series last night. He didn’t leave alone.

Lest the title confuse you: the subject of last night’s Composer Portrait was (the music of) Augusta Read Thomas, a well-regarded American composer and music educator whose works have seen successful Carnegie Hall premiers and honors too numerous to mention. Her innovative use of percussion, among other traits, has earned her international fame and fruitful relationships with orchestras in Chicago, New York, and Boston.

Last night’s performance began with Capricci, a work for violin and viola originally composed as a wedding gift for two of Thomas’s friends. Though not quite what one would expect to hear at a wedding, the piece is conceptually apropos: the interplay of the two instruments’ (often divergent) melodies is meant to signify the give-and-take of a relationship, with all the strife and compromise that entails. Despite the occasionally discordant bent of the piece, it was also relatively easy to listen to and therefore a pointed reminder that a piece can be expressive without sacrificing aesthetics entirely.

The same can be said of the two pieces that followed, “Invocations” from Sun Thread and Selene. Both featured the JACK Quartet, and the latter added Chicago’s exceptionally skilled Third Coast Percussion ensemble to the mix. It was about halfway through the world premier of Selene that I started to feel a weight pressing against my shoulders. I didn’t think much of it at first; it had been a long day, we were nearing intermission, the weather had been gloomy—any number of things could be weighing on me. I tried to focus on the ethereal marimba, the virtuosic bongo-tapping, the seamlessness with which the lead was passed from violin to viola to cello and back again.

“White, too, were her two horses, and silver her chariot,” a voice whispered urgently in my ear. I didn’t dare turn around. Hot breath came quick on my cheek, and the prickle of stubble played across my neck. The pompous word order, the gratuitous ellipsis, the careless use of two homophones too close to each other—it could be no other than Paul Griffiths, OBE, author of the performance’s program notes. Had he come to infect this night, to snatch ambiguity from the jaws of reason, to poison my simple-minded enjoyment of earthly pleasures?

“The earth gives us our gravity,” he murmured. Was he drunk? More importantly, could he hear my thoughts?

“We are all partials of the same elemental resonator,” he said, grasping at my chest. “Now, stand.”

Just as I stood, the lights went up and conversation rumbled around me. Could he control them, too?

“It’s intermission, you half-wit,” Griffiths growled, driving me towards the lobby.

“Are we leaving?” I asked.

“There’s free hot cider out here,” he said. “Even in this form most ethereal, my earthly needs can stand no neglect.”

Predictably, there was a line for the cider. The beast astride my back grumbled something about a “bothersome queue” and announced that we needed to “find a bathroom right quick.” But I’d had enough. Surely this evil spirit could not leave the confines of the theatre! His meaningless drivel needed the sort of artistic cause not often found on the sidewalks of Broadway. Cultural starvation was the only antidote.

I fled. Out the doors, into the subway station, past the turnstiles, down forty blocks, and back into the street. I finally collapsed, prostrate, on the sidewalk outside the FedEx store. Griffiths’s weight was gone. I was alone. I was free.

The train ride back to campus was euphoric. My mind was once again my own. Such is the joy of man! I began to turn my attention to the task at hand: how would I start the night’s article? Surely some background was in order; the layman couldn’t be expected to know the career of Augusta Read Thomas. Suddenly, my vision began to blur and the thumping of the train seemed to grow distant.

From the fog came that sickly, refined voice: “Augusta Read Thomas needs no introduction.” My shackles had returned. My escape was thwarted! Griffiths had planted the seed of his prose in my mind, and I could have no experience without him. I would have to live out my remaining days under his watchful eye and senseless tongue.

“Astounding how the darkness is meant to both conduct us through the urban behemoth and stifle the depravity it would otherwise compel,” the critic mused, gnawing on the handrail above me. “How terribly Foucauldian.”

“Couldn’t agree more, P-Grizzle,” I responded. Perhaps flattery could run his interest thin.

“At last, he speaks kindness! But you’ve left the show, you ingrate! You’ve wrenched yourself from the teat of The Great Musical Earth, and now you thirst in despair, or ought to.”

“You’re mixing your metaphors again, Paul.”

“It’s fine, I’m self-aware. When we get off this train, I have a task most essential for you.”

“Please, Paul, I’m not in the mood. Maybe another night.”

“You’re going to find a patch of bare earth, slice at it with your spade, and bury your head in that sweet soil until its rhythms pervade your very being. Only through this act will you come to understand that life itself takes place under the sign of what we know to be three infinitesimal specks in a boundless universe, and that we know also as the site of the life of which we are a part and as the two heavenly bodies that appear to us as more than infinitesimal specks. Earth and moon and sun. Sun and moon and earth.”

The train screeched to a halt, and we disembarked. Hot tears splashed on condom-littered stairs as I lifted my new burden into the night. Truth was dead, and with it beauty.

Honored guest via Miller Theatre

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