Experimental Concert for Solo Viola, Memento Mori, Reminds Us Life Is Fleeting

By Anna Pulley

“Life is fleeting and transformation to another state is inevitable.”

This is the underlying concept of Memento Mori, a series of new works for solo viola featuring Ensemble Dal Niente violist Ammie Brod. This quest to stop time as well as welcome its unrelenting ongoingness will include new pieces by five composers, including several world premieres.

Brod was inspired to create the series after seeing a sculpture by glass artist Beth Lipman, whose sensual, sparkling works evoke longing, ephemerality, and inevitable decay.

Beth Lipman, "Laid Table (Still Life with Metal Pitcher)," 2007 Photo credit: John R. Glembin
Beth Lipman, “Laid Table (Still Life with Metal Pitcher),” 2007
Photo credit: John R. Glembin

“I’d already been interested in [the process of decay] conceptually,” says Brod, “because I’m also a professional floral designer and the images of blown-out and dying flowers in old still lifes really resonated.

“Seeing [Lipman’s] shockingly contemporary still life crystallized some ideas I’d been trying to articulate, about how to take old ideas and rework them into something that speaks to our present time.”

The piece that inspired Brod is called ‘Laid Table (Still Life with Metal Pitcher),’ and is tucked away in a gallery of dark, Baroque European paintings in the Milwaukee Art Museum. “My second show is at the Milwaukee Art Museum specifically because of this experience,” Brod says.

“You turn a corner to suddenly see this brilliant, gleaming work of art, and it’s entirely shocking. Her still life is made almost entirely out of glass. At first glance it seems incredibly perfect, but as you look more closely you realize that it has the same chaotic undercurrent as those old paintings of skulls and decaying food–there are even tiny glass snails scattered over the table.


“It was such a perfect representation of the synergy I’d been looking for between the past and the present: How do we take an old thing and make it new, place it in the context of our current technology and knowledge? How do you move forward? How do you move on? How do you move away from where you are now without forgetting where that is?”

To answer this question Alejandro T. Acierto created “Here, where we continually arrive,” which employs electronics in response to real-time usage of the Twitter hashtag #LGBTQ, which Brod in turn will respond to with her viola. Each performance of this piece places the performer, creator, and audience “inside of a queer reality, controlled by and in concert with the real-world discussion of a community that constantly fights against erasure,” as Brod puts it.

How does one turn a hashtag into music exactly?

When somebody tweets #LGBTQ, Acierto’s program detects it and uses it as an impetus to change the musical material it generates.

“That material is made up of previously-recorded sounds that we worked out together in my apartment as well as a slightly processed version of the improvised sounds that I’m making onstage as the piece is happening,” she says.

Acierto called these processed sounds “not too different, more like a slightly new relationship to the viola.”


“What I love about this,” she adds, “is that it has so many levels: We have past me, present me, electronic me, present me listening to electronic me … and underneath all of that, there’s Twitter, and queer identity, and the real world and how it interacts with those things. Alejandro and I both identify as queer and it turns out that adding that ‘Q’ into the hashtag slows down the rate of change, because that part of the alphabet doesn’t get talked about as much. It feels great to be making art that specifically hinges on ‘hearing’ who we are and creating change based on that knowledge.”

In addition to “Here, where we continually arrive,” other pieces include LJ White’s “Look After You,” which reflects a lifetime in sound, with the viola as a stand-in for a person who tries, over the course of their life, to figure out what it means to be good and moral.

Lisa Atkinson’s “(te) salve” sonically embodies the text of a 15th-century European recitation about dying gracefully by transforming vocal sounds like fricatives and plosives into musical textures.

In “after parting – 在離去之後,” Jacob Sudol’s new work about decay and entropy, Brod will partner with soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett and clarinetist Alejandro T. Acierto, melding vocal, wind, and string sounds with electronics. The text is a poem, written by Chen-Hui Jen, about autumn, which in Chinese poetry symbolizes the cycle of time when things approach death or “non-being.”


The oldest piece on the program will be Katherine Pukinskis’ Quiet Threnody, a musical meditation on the stages of grief, written in 2015 as part of University of Chicago’s Project Incubator.

Memento Mori starts its run in Chicago on December 9, then goes on to Milwaukee December 13, then Florida January 23, and Cleveland February 2. Visit Dal Niente’s website or Brod’s for details.


Anna Pulley is the associate editor at Strings.