The Anticipation of Seeing Something New: A Review of John Costa’s Refuge

by Hayley Heaton
Before I begin, I should warn you: I quit taking piano and violin lessons before I could drive; and I listen to as much rap as I do Bartok. So, I may not be an expert on music, per se, but I am open to new experiences, particularly the culturally brave kind. And when I say culturally brave, I mean the sort of experiences NOVA Chamber Music series provides our community. Where else can you sit in an art gallery full of Frankenstein paintings and listen to Haydn on a Sunday afternoon? Or gather at The Natural History Museum of Utah to listen to a newly commissioned piece by a local composer? NOVA is a gift, full of talented and passionate people providing new experiences to devour.

This evening I had the opportunity to attend a debut of John Costa’s Refuge for soprano, string quartet, and piano, which was commissioned by NOVA Chamber Music series. While some must have found the piece beautiful to listen to, I found it more thought provoking on a personal (poetic) level. Here’s why:

Back in my graduate school days in New York City, when I was smarter and knew everything about music, food, wine, fashion, life, love, death, and poetry, this review would have been much easier to write. Now that I’m older and have realized that I know nothing, it’s a bit more difficult. Having said that, there may be something from my days of knowing everything that could be of help here: ekphrasis. Yes, that’s definitely one of those big, fancy words people who know everything use, but it’s a good one – especially when reviewing a concert based on a series of short poems, which were taken and created from a book.

While studying to get my master’s degree in Creative Writing in poetry, I was obsessed with the notion of contemporary ekphrasis. I blame postmodernism, another big, fancy word people like to throw around to sound smart, but stick with me here. Ekphrasis is simply a poetic way to describe another work of art; think of Keats and his Ode on a Grecian Urn or Auden’s In the Musee des Beaux Arts. Both poets are describing previously created pieces of art in their own respective poetic ways. I would argue that Refuge, a work for soprano, string quartet, and piano, composed by John Costa, works as a contemporary version of ekphrasis. The aforementioned composition was inspired by a previous work of text, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams. The composition is made up of excerpts from the book and features what I’d like to call a series of small poems sung by a soprano, in this case the talented, and uniquely coiffed, Tony Arnold.

There are various themes swirling throughout the piece, which you can hear musically – as well as textually – through the poetry or lyrics. These themes range from birds as the living, the dying and the dead, to landscapes as a substitute for a mother and as a source of renewal, as well as a mother’s cancer. Although disjointed at times, the performance represented an emotional landscape of grief through tangible means. After all, grief is not a linear process. It can be frenzied and ravenous, as the music and poetry suggests, just as it can be abruptly punctuated by silence and emptiness. Through all of this lovely and slow cacophony, one theme remains: the only thing that is constant in life, is change.

Like all good ekphrastic pieces of art, Costa’s Refuge has layers. Not only does it exist in the past, with the experiences of the original author of the text, but it also exists in the present with the listeners hearing the notes from the soprano, string quartet, and piano, and it will exist in the future as both a piece to listen to, as well as a small series of poems to read. If that’s not a lovely pot full of kinetic ekphrastic soup, I don’t know what is.

The NOVA Chamber Music Series presented John Costa’s Refuge, inspired by text from Terry Tempest Williams and featuring soprano Tony Arnold, at the Natural History Museum of Utah October 16th.

Categories: Music

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