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‘Wiggle! Waggle! Wobble!’: Fred Child, Wang Jie, and Third Sound ‘Blame the Obituary’

The absurd quest for immortality was explored in a world premiere at Chamber Music Northwest.

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Fred Child and Third Sound at CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Fred Child and Third Sound at CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.

“Wiggle! Waggle! Wobble!” Those words declaimed by Fred Child echoed in Lincoln Hall as part of the Blame the Obituary, a monodrama written by Wang Jie that was given its world premiere July 23 (and performed again the next night in Kaul Auditorium). Co-commissioned by Chamber Music Northwest, Blame the Obituary featured Third Sound, a collective of virtuosic chamber musicians from New York City, and the narration of Child with text by screenwriter Charlie Peters. With an odd and lightly humorous touch, the piece dealt with the quest for immortality in a way that Franz Kafka might have appreciated. 

The show was a homecoming for Child, who grew up in Portland, and is well-known nationally as the host of Performance Today, the classical music radio program. He is married to Jie, who has received many accolades for a wide range of compositions and an inventive exploratory style. 

Wang Jie and Third Sound at CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Wang Jie and Third Sound at CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.

The wiggle/waggle/wobble related to the movement of a tardigrade, which is an eight-legged micro-animal that is also known as a water bear or a moss piglet. Tardigrades can survive extreme temperatures, radiation, dehydration, and starvation, and can live in nearly any environment. According to Wikipedia, “the 2017 South Park episode ‘Moss Piglets’ involved a science experiment in which tardigrades learned to dance to the music of Taylor Swift.”  

Blame the Obituary began with Child positioned behind a large black screen, talking in a high nasally voice as if he were a tardigrade himself and – accompanied by pointillistic music – telling us that he (the tardigrade) “will never die.”

Fred Child and Third Sound at CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Fred Child and Third Sound at CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.

After that introduction, Child emerges from behind the screen and moves to a lectern where he becomes Daniel Blaine Nelson, a screenwriter who discovers that he was not mentioned in a colleague’s obituary even though he felt that he has been a big factor in that person’s success. Since the pandemic or another deadly circumstance might swiftly extinguish his mortal being, Nelson (Child) boldly decided to get a head start on the matter and write his own obituary. 

Witty remarks about screenplays, followed by interaction with the members of Third Sound (flutist Laura Cocks, clarinetist Bixby Kennedy, violinist Karen Kim, cellist Michael Nicolas, and pianist Steven Beck) elicited chuckles from the audience–although some of the humor seemed forced. It gradually came out that Nelson had created or imagined that he had created a trilogy that starred tardigrades, and that they would be enhanced with a Bollywood ending. 

Fred Child and Third Sound at CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Fred Child and Third Sound at CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Toward the end of Blame the Obituary, Child returned to the screen, pulled it aside, and–as if he had become one with the tardigrade–returned to the high nasally voice. The piece nodded towards Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis, but stayed on the lighter side. Third Sound seemed to enjoy making all kinds of reactions that underscored Child’s monologue as well as the wiggly, waggly, and wobbly lines for the tardigrade. Now, I’m wondering if the piece has legs and will be done elsewhere. 

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How do you follow such an absurdist piece? Well, after intermission, violinist Diana Adamyan and pianist Zitong Wang created an entirely different atmosphere, starting with Three Armenian Folks Songs by Armenian composer Komitas Vardapet. As CMNW protégé artists, Adamyan and Wang superbly expressed the highly melodic works. In particular, Adamyan drew on her Armenian roots to deliver a soulful testament to a culture that has been repressed for a long time. The first number, Chinar es, was poignant and hypnotically melancholy. The second, Qeler, Tsoler, offered a tender sadness. The third, Krunk, stirred things up with Adamyan playing passionately at the higher end of the violin and Wang at the lower end of the piano. 

Diana Adamyan and Zitong Wang at CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Diana Adamyan and Zitong Wang at CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Next came Richard Strauss’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, which received a rhapsodic, taut, and totally committed performance from Adamyan and Wang. They caressed the notes for the slow passages and generated virtuosic sparks for the fiery sections. A furious finish at the end of the first movement caused spontaneous applause to break out from the audience. The second was equally rewarding with marvelous transitions from lovely lyrical lines to aggressive and menacing phrases. The third started with Wang fashioning a dark and dusky sound from the piano, and with Adamyan joining in, jumped to a grand romantic melody. At one point, Wang’s fingers seemed to dance on the keyboard, and Adamyan deftly elicited vigorous runs and sweet, lilting segments. The dramatic flourishes by both in the finale brought the house down.

The concert opened with Portland poet Alicia Jo Rabins reading her poem, Things I’ve Heard and Said this Week, which gave a thoughtful reflection on how the pandemic affected people. A minute or two of silence passed before Wang launched into Alexander Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 3. Wang excelled with the stunning turbulent passages, the sudden sforzandos, the springy bass, the dreamy section that suggested clouds passing overhead, the wild exuberant phrases, and the dynamic seesawing between really loud and really soft lines. Wang fearlessly delved into the complexity of the piece, shaped it beautifully, and created an awesome experience for listeners. The audience ate it up, rewarding her performance enthusiastically.

Alicia Jo Rabins at CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Alicia Jo Rabins at CMNW 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

James Bash enjoys writing for The Oregonian, The Columbian, Classical Voice North America, Opera, and many other publications. He has also written articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and the Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2nd edition. He received a fellowship to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera, and is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America.
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