Inspired by the art of Alberto Burri. Text by Duncan McFarlane.
Commissioned with the generous support of the Ontario Arts Council.
Thin Edge New Music Collective, 2016
Stacie Dunlop, soprano
Ilana Waniuk, violin
Dobrochna Zubek, cello
Nathan Petitpas, percussion
Strange Flesh takes as its starting point the art of Alberto Burri – graceful, elegant, elegiac “paintings” both beautiful and grotesque. Simple in their stark colours (white, red, black, brown), his sculpture-paintings drew on his experience as a doctor and WWII POW, witness to so many injuries to so much flesh. His canvas becomes skin – sewn, burned, scarred, webbed with melted plastic, gaping in strange vacuoles – caught most often (it seems) as it heals. In his art, wounds are both fresh, and glimpsed long afterwards; they linger, sutured and bruised.
In a world increasingly desensitized to images of violence, true injury still shocks, and even the necessary injuries of modern surgery hold terror in their very deliberateness. Even at its most refined, any intrusion on skin is ultimately unnatural, strange. Skin becomes flesh, and then meat, and injured it has an electric hypersensitivity to touch, which the sound world of this piece and all its slow semi-tone dissonance and unstable blurring of pitch through timbre-play evokes in music.
Strange Flesh falls in two large sections which parallel and repeat each other to suggest the very cycle the soprano describes as she emerges from a web of sound. Interwoven or enmeshed in a sonic skin, in words of one and two syllables she offers a ghostly narrative, only implied: of violence to skin (surgical or otherwise), of flesh cut, carved, burned, that oozes, weeps, dries, sheds, and heals. Slowly a second story is revealed, a life cycle that evokes the earth’s skin: dust, ash, mantle, clay. Burri’s last paintings evoke the parched skin of dried mud, cracked, wrinkled, waiting for rain. The singer slowly sheds her horror and agitation; each half of the piece concludes with a balm, or lullaby: healing, restorative, a gentle C major – sound that soothes.