Appears on drawn only once: the music of john supko
Performed by Erin Lesser (flutes), & Greg Beyer (percussion)
Narration by
Cees Nooteboom & John Supko
Text by Cees Nooteboom & Richard Hakluyt
Video (2010) by
Kristine Marx

Here is the program note Jeffrey Edelstein wrote for Littoral in 2007:

As its title indicates, Littoral, by John Supko, might be expected to provide a map of the ‘shoals,’ so to speak, that outlines its musical ambitions and delights. But grasp tightly the bulwark for the journey, which explores the unexpected depths that punctuate any shoreline. It might be useful to think of these program notes as akin to an old map: helpful, as old maps once were for intrepid sailors who had little to guide them but sea and sky and rumors from distant places, but dangerous to rely upon too heavily.

Littoral is a voyage hewing to the shore of an allusive music. The listener is seated, as if at the prow of a ship, surrounded not by sea but by recorded sounds of water and tones and spoken words emanating from five speakers (and one sub-woofer) and by live sounds from two instrumentalists. As different musical styles are intimated, and as ideas and imagination are focused by poetry and prose layered amidst electronic and acoustic sounds, a modernist musical texture seems to ebb and flow into something which dissolves modernism with evocations of sea and birds; and as time seems to slow and speed, a feeling of journey is conveyed.

To create these impressions the composer amalgamated and synthesized field recordings of the sea, his own voice processed by computer, and the recorded voice of a poet. And he employed acoustic instruments: flute, alto flute, and piccolo; and an array of percussion, including almglocken (cow bells), Thai gongs, vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, 12 pitched woodblocks, and drums. (The flute and percussion are played by Due East, Erin Lesser and Greg Beyer, who commissioned the work, and premiered it March 10, 2007 at Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon. Littoral is dedicated to them.)

But the prevailing sensations are evoked by a set of electronic sounds—heard in counterpoint—fashioned from 37 musical lines. After each line was composed, it was processed by a virtual instrument and then recorded in five to seven realizations, creating a composite sound which is in flux among the five to seven versions of itself. After the composer invented the melodic lines he gave them (as well as other recorded sounds) a position in space by mapping where the sounds surround the listener physically.

The duration of a performance of Littoral is about 35 minutes in one movement with one time signature, 5/4. The movement can be heard as having four sections, each having two subsections (1a, 1b; 2a, and so on). The work is fully notated and rigorously crafted:  the final eight minutes are a retrograde of the beginning.


Littoral is an autobiographical work that pays homage to two of the composer’s teachers, 
Frances McKay and Paul Lansky, who represent, respectively, the beginning and the end of his formal compositional training:  McKay taught the composer during his high school years; Lansky is his principal graduate advisor. The work thus alludes to McKay’s chamber music evoking water, and to Lansky’s use of percussive sounds and randomization.

What is not immediately apparent is that the use of text is another autobiographical aspect. Since he was eleven, the composer has reached out to the world of the arts by corresponding with various well-known authors, composers, and poets, including Paul Bowles, James Lord, David Diamond, George Crumb, Morton Gould, Lou Harrison, Milan Kundera, Henri Dutilleux, and Philippe Denis. His correspondence with the noted Dutch travel writer, novelist, and poet Cees Nooteboom (b. 1933), with whom he shares a fascination with the relationship of actual travel to imagination, led the composer to ask Nooteboom to record his poem Cartography, from the collection The Captain of the Butterflies (1955–96) for inclusion in Littoral. Tellingly, Nooteboom reads an English translation—a translation is much like an old map— strangely familiar and dangerously misleading.

Into Nooteboom’s philosophical poem the composer interpolates an excerpt from Richard 
Hakluyt (1532–1616), the English literary figure credited with inventing travel literature. This interpolation of Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation—a sextant and stars in words—is spiritually remote from Nooteboom as it is about finding one’s way physically, and expanding an empire.

In exploring the depths of Littoral the listener is carried into a meditation on the deceptive 
correlations of thought and experience and of depiction and perception. And if these program notes have stood in relation to Littoral like an old map to an actual coastline, then experiencing the work may confirm that the shore is not where we had expected to find it. So let the epigram printed on the score guide our listening: “Aile falquée du songe, vous nous retrouverez ce soir sur d’autres rives.” (Saint-John Perse, Oiseaux, Sickle wing of the dream, tonight you shall find us on other shores.)

Jeffrey Edelstein
Director for New Music
Crane Arts -- Ice Box Project Space
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania