Puddle and Pivot by Katherine Pukinskis
Two new companion works for reed quintet by Katherine Pukinskis that reflect our time apart and together during the COVID-19 pandemic. Akropolis will be giving the world premiere of these two works during their residency at the Chamber Music Festival of Saugatuck in July, 2021.
Katherine Pukinskis (b. 1986) is a composer-scholar currently based in Western Massachusetts. Dr. Pukinskis has had works premiered by eighth blackbird, Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, Akron Symphony Chorus, and the Spektral Quartet, as well as by members of Ensemble Dal Niente and the Chicago Symphony Chorus. Commissioning ensembles include San Antonio Symphony, Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, Heritage Chorale, the Esoterics Choir, and Nuorten Kuoroliitto (Helsinki Finland).
An advocate of under-represented and under-respected voices in Western classical music, Pukinskis’s work often brings unlikely text or content into conversation in the concert hall. A 2016 commission by La Caccina sets a mosaic of unwelcome comments often directed at women in “We Are:” a 2019 project was started by a commission from the Esoterics in Seattle where Pukinskis excerpts from dissents written by the female Supreme Court Justices of the United States. Both her work in composition and research explore storytelling and voice—tracking how words and ideas travel in music, across the world, and over time. Pukinskis teaches courses in composition and music theory at Amherst College, previously at the University of Chicago and Harvard University. She is also on the composition faculty at the Longy School of Music.
About Puddle from the Composer
M.C. Escher created a piece called Puddle, 1952 that shows the reflection of trees and sky in a puddle made by depressions in the dirt from tires and footsteps. I chose to recognize Escher’s work in this new work for the Akropolis Reed Quintet because of the image’s capacity to encapsulate so many different story lines in one plane of view. One cannot see what is behind or above–in Escher’s case, the trees in the sky–without looking at the paths taken by others through the mud; there is a dependence on the independent motion of others in order to better see your own surroundings.
I had the good fortune of speaking individually to each member of the quintet before I started writing Puddle; I asked them what their favorite things about the quintet were and what they found they missed the most about being together during the pandemic. I was struck by their individual identities alongside the deep common bond they have through working together in this ensemble. Each celebrates the individuality of the members, but acknowledges that all five of them need to be together in order for the unit to work. They missed the balance of personalities and the way they challenge one another to be better and grow. In this piece, I wanted to harness the bond between members of the Akropolis Reed Quintet, and to highlight their current separation.
When it finally came to composing the piece, everything fell apart. I forgot to take into account my own feelings in budgeting the composition process. In trying to harness and compose-in the separation between others in my music, I was forced to face my own experience of the past four months. My loneliness took over. My sense of isolation and longing to connect through music was overwhelming. By composing a piece that had to be assembled by musicians in separate spaces, each motivic idea hammered in the effects of separation.
Needless to say, most of this piece came together in fits and spurts bookended by a surprising amount of tears and apathy, which isn’t often how composing goes for me. In the end though, as I listen to it, I feel all of the elements I wanted to fold in; it is a yearning to find one another, fleeting moments of ensemble or passing by one another in a paisley-patterned sonic texture, a series of Sisyphean builds toward an apex that never quite reaches a height that feels harmonically or temporally satisfying. It is stops and starts and “maybe we should go this way, or how about this direction?,” a fleeting moment of stability in an octave or a perfect fifth. It is lugubrious drudgery and bright lights that break the monotony. You can’t see one line without the imprint of another, and each gesture is reflected back at a new angle.
About Pivot from the Composer
Pivot is the companion piece to Puddle, which was composed in the summer of 2020. Puddle was written to be compiled through a series of single-instrument recording sessions to accommodate for a necessary pandemic-related separation. Pivot was commissioned to be a piece that required Akropolis to play in-person as an ensemble.
I wanted the two pieces to be connected to one another without sounding like they were cut from the same cloth. The pitch material for Pivot comes from the slogging bassoon and bass clarinet ostinato in the middle section of Puddle, but is transformed into the tightly wound descent that opens this new piece and is sprinkled throughout. The manipulation of tempo, isolated rallentandos, and repeated pulsing pitches that were used as temporal anchors for Puddle’s recording logistics now return in Pivot; here, though, they are the fading residue after long tones.
The distinct live-ness of Pivot is folded into the piece in two ways. The first half of the composition is built to be highly responsive and interactive within the ensemble; in certain moments, the oboe cannot enter until the clarinet has started their line, or the bassoon and bass clarinet need to calibrate their lines to enter at the same time and maintain a unified tempo for a certain duration. While performers always have control over their interpretation of a work, I purposely built Pivot to tap into the tenets of great conversation—active listening, an awareness of the other people in the discussion, a consideration of time and space, and an engagement beyond the surface. This required flexibility also means that each performance will be slightly different, dependent on the individuals on stage and their interactions with one another. Some performances may sail through the first part of the piece with a sense of urgency or freedom, others may take on a more contemplative tone. Depending on the acoustics of the performance space, the ensemble may choose to let certain gestures resonate for longer or to compress time in certain sections to take advantage of the surrounding architecture.
The second part of the piece basks in the joys of live performance; it is a ticking machine, where the quarter note pulse is constant and relentless. The lines are acrobatic and face extensions and truncations of the 4/4 bar, and the rhythmic grooves are interrupted with skips and hitches; as a complement to the first part’s necessity of in-person ensemble performance due to the individuality of lines, the second part of the piece relishes in the shared groove. The tangible and consistent pulse saturates the feeling of togetherness, and navigating the asymmetries and intricacies as a unit bring out some of the joys of ensemble playing, much like the syncing of oars while rowing crew or the unified leans of a bobsled team barreling down a track. The audience, then, gets to come along for the ride.
I am grateful to Akropolis for their time and attention in workshopping this piece and helping it to grow into what it has become.