In search of Proust and "Invisible Lilacs"

by Guest Blogger

Keir GoGwilt ’13, a resident of Adams House concentrating in literature, was awarded a 2012 Artist Development Fellowship to attend the Bowdoin International Music Festival. In addition to studying abroad with faculty members from the Köln Hochschule and the Guildhall School of Music, he worked with American composer Tobias Picker on a recording, which he writes about here. He hopes to purses a career as a concert violinist and be involved in the academic study of performance.

I first encountered the music of American composer Tobias Picker at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. His operas include An American Tragedy (based on the novel by Theodore Dreiser) and Emmeline (based on a short story by Judith Rosner). Part of what intrigued me about his work was this literary influence.

As a literature concentrator, I find that my academic work and my music performance keep meeting in unexpected ways. Studying in an interdisciplinary, liberal arts setting has allowed me to connect the technical, sensory work of practicing musicians to literary theories of reading, writing and interpretation. Last semester, I helped to put together a performance and analysis class on the music of Arnold Schoenberg with John Hamilton, professor of comparative literature, and Federico Cortese, director of the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra. I thought it was an important step toward an interdisciplinary mode of study that combines theory and the practice of performance and analysis. After all, studying a score is very similar to reading and writing about literary texts.

The recording project you see here, funded in part by the Office for the Arts, is a result of my dual interest in literature and the music of Picker. I had an amazing time working with him and the pianist Nathaniel LaNasa. The piece that we recorded, Invisible Lilacs, was inspired by his reading of Proust’s very long novel In Search of Lost Time. Proust mentions a recurring violin piece -- referred to as the "Vinteuil Sonata." I like to think of Picker’s piece as the re-writing of this fiction.

The first and second movements of Invisible Lilacs are melodious and sprawling. They resonate with Proust’s writing, asking the performer (much like the reader) to feel and touch many textures and nuances in the music. The third movement, which is shown in the video, is this sort of compulsive, ecstatic explosion. It’s unexpected in the context of the whole score -- and really difficult to play!

Nathaniel and I performed Invisible Lilacs at the Harvard Club of New York City, the Century Club and the Gamper Festival of Contemporary Music at Bowdoin College. We are recording Picker’s Piano Quintet in May, following a performance at Miller Theatre at Columbia University.

In addition to the Miller Theatre recital, some of my upcoming performances include a program of sonatas and songs without words with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, Vivaldi's Four Seasons with the Bach Society Orchestra and Lucien Werner '13 at Sanders Theatre, and Alban Berg's violin concerto "To the memory of an angel" with Matthew Aucoin c ’12 at the Peabody Essex Museum.

[Caption: Front row: Recording engineer Louis Brown, composer Tobias Picker. Back row: Pianist Nathaniel LaNasa and violinist and guest blogger Keir GoGwilt. PHOTO and VIDEO: TM Rives]