Law of Mosaics notes

The composers' own notes for A Far Cry's program Law of Mosaics, Thursday, April 6, at 7pm, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

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ANDREW NORMAN (b. 1979)
THE COMPANION GUIDE TO ROME

During my year as a fellow at the American Academy in Rome I made it my goal to visit every church in the city. Though I did not come even close to achieving this goal, I did discover many unique spaces that I came to know well over the course of the year. This piece is a series of portraits of some of my favorite Roman churches. The music is, at different times and in different ways, informed by the proportions of the buildings, the qualities of their surfaces, the patterns in their floors, the artwork on their walls, and the lives and legends of the saints whose names they bear. The more I worked on these miniatures, the less they had to do with actual buildings and the more they became character studies of imaginary people, my companions for my year abroad. (AN)
 

TED HEARNE (b. 1982)
LAW OF MOSAICS

"Thomas Jefferson went through the New Testament and removed all the miracles, leaving only the teachings."

"Meaning is a matter of adjacent data."

"The law of mosaics: how to deal with parts in the absence of wholes."

These passages, along with many others, are appropriated from a variety of sources and arranged by David Shields into his 2010 book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. It is a patchwork treatise on art and digital culture, and is an inspiration for Law of Mosaics, a 30­-minute piece for A Far Cry.

The musical material from the first movement, “Excerpts from the middle of something,” is lush and climactic­ but it is also a fish out of water, removed from surrounding music that might help it be better contextualized. It could follow a tense build­-up, or precede a climax and resolution, but instead we hear it repeated and revised. As the material circles in on itself, it begins to make sense on its own, but never really "goes" anywhere.

The second movement, “Palindrome for Andrew Norman,” is constructed entirely of samples lifted from other pieces of music. Each plays an important or climactic role in the piece from which it is lifted, but is used here as a single building block in the construction of a symmetrical (and rather arbitrary) formal structure: the palindrome. Each sample is altered from its original composition in some way: it may appear backwards, or re-voiced, or as a canon with itself, but an element of its essential character is always preserved.

Andrew Norman is a contemporary composer from New York whose 2010 string trio The Companion Guide to Rome is heard among the many snippets of source material in this movement.

In some way, the rich history of works written for the string orchestra informs and influences every performance by every individual string orchestra active today, whether they choose to perform those works or not. “Climactic moments from ‘Adagio for Strings’ and ‘The Four Seasons,’ slowed down and layered on top of one another” explores what can happen when two "staples" of the repertoire (likely to be found on a Best Classical Hits CD) are stretched out and mashed up.

The fourth movement, “Beats,” is driven by noise, punk and electronic music more than classical music influences. A simple and clear form is filled with music that plays with the space between pitch and non-­pitched sound.

“Climactic moments from movement three, three times as slow as before” is simply a reframing of music you have already heard.

“The warp and woof” refers to the lengthwise (warp) and crosswise (woof) threads that together create the texture and foundation of a woven fabric. It is a fitting end for a piece that imagines the framing of musical content to be as integral to the structure of a work as the way that content is framed. (TH)


Image of San Pietro in Montorio, depicted in "Pietro" from Andrew Norman's The Companion Guide to Rome.  Photo by Peter1936F - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49747903

In Conversation with Andrew Norman and Ted Hearne

In advance of A Far Cry's performance this Thursday, April 6, of its 2014 album, The Law of Mosaics, featuring The Companion Guide to Rome by Andrew Norman, and The Law of Mosaics by Ted Hearne, we're reprinting this interview from the original liner notes, in which the composers talk about their own music and each others'.

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An Email Trialog with Ted Hearne, Andrew Norman and Ryan Dohoney
                    
Ryan Dohoney (RD): Andrew, you talk about the Companion Guide as a set of translations from physical, visual, and architectural space into musical sounds—Would you talk about how the process worked for you in the com­position of Companion Guide and the ways in which certain architectural and acoustic analogies became apparent to you?
                    
Andrew Norman (AN): The process of trans­lating architectural spaces into sound worked itself out differently in each movement of the Companion Guide. Some of the movements began with a very intuitive reaction to a particular space, as in “how does this building make me feel, and how can I write music that explores that feeling?,” and some of the movements began with a more objective act of transference, with taking hard architectural numbers and plugging them into various musical parameters just to see what they might sound like.
                    
Pietro is probably the most literal example of taking architectural proportions and transferring them, one-­to-­one, into musical proportions. It’s inspired by Bra­mante’s Tempietto at San Pietro in Montorio, a tiny little jewel box that is one of the first and most important examples of Renaissance architecture in Rome. The Tempietto was built at a time when people were rediscovering the classical idea of using simple, beautiful whole number ratios to determine the proportions of their buildings, and thus it has everything to do with Pythagoras and his explorations of simple, beautiful whole number ratios as expressed in the relationship of harmonic nodes on string instruments (hence my little piece being made entirely of open strings and natural harmonics). Pietro is also a mini isorhythmic motet, a nod to a particularly mathematical and abstruse form of liturgical composition that was in vogue at the time the Tempietto was built. I really like the idea that music can contain layer upon layer of refer­ence, and that those references can add up to a potentially rich experience that goes beyond the notes and rhythms on the page. I think this is something I share in common with Ted, though I’m not using direct quotation and sampling to create that web of reference in the way that he does.
                    
RD Also, you then seem to translate this acoustic composition back into spatialized sound with the staging and arrangement of the piece in performance. Do the two architectural situations have anything to do with each other in your mind, or is the point the difference?
                    
AN The staging instructions in Companion Guide are only there to heighten the sense of multiplicity—of voices, materials, points of view, physical locations—within the piece. I wanted each movement to be a distinct world unto itself, and so performing them in different locations on stage is meant to emphasize this. I suppose the stage then becomes a metaphor for the city of Rome.
                    
RD Ted, Law seems not to work through translation as much as it does extraction and magnification. I’m referring in particular to your references to “extracts,’’ “climactic moments,’’ etc. in movement titles. Your music amplifies and explodes musical frag­ments. How to you go about choosing what to extract/magnify and how to go about transforming it?
                    
Ted Hearne (TH): I’m fascinated with quotation in music (and all other ways of referencing pre­existing works and styles), because it is an aggressive action on the part of the composer to weave a dialogue with the past into the surface layer of the music. It’s the act of stealing a fully ­formed work, along with all the associations and meanings it has earned over time on its own merits, and co­opting all of that history into your own story that is being written in the present. The choices of what to do with those histories (how to order and layer them, how to chop them up or otherwise distort them beyond recognition) speak volumes about who we are and where we are coming from, and they’re often more important to me than choices about what notes and rhythms to use.
                    
Look at the production of almost any nonclas­sical recording artist and you’ll see that these choices define their sonic identity. The musi­cians I love the most combine their influences in ways that both respect and engage those sources’ histories.

To answer your question more directly, my “extract­magnify’’ choices were inspired by the ingenious way some of the hip-hop art­ists I love use sampling. Kanye West is a great example of an artist who understands the power of accessing history through a sample, and the endless gradations of dialogue that can come with that.
                    
With Law of Mosaics, I wanted to play with sampling’s ability to access our shared histories in different ways. The second move­ment does this by extracting from a variety of pieces of music—some in a way that com­municates very obviously to listeners familiar with classical music (a la Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves’’), and some in a way that are not at all easy to pick up on, even for one who is familiar with the source material. And by giving the movement an arbitrary formal restraint (“Palindrome’’), I hoped to create a space where the listener could hear each sample in a new context while still interacting with their historical ramifications.
                    
I wanted to use a lot of classical­ music sources for manipulation. I loved the idea of a war­horse like Barber’s Adagio for Strings being morphed completely beyond recogni­tion, because that process made me try to identify the precise line over which a piece of music has to cross before it could no longer be considered that piece of music. It made me examine the relationship between the actual sounds I was hearing and the contextual meaning I had ascribed to the music. In terms of what music I chose to extract, it was always first and foremost a sound I liked, and always from a source I like or at least one I have a deep relationship with.
                    
RD Both of you speak to the possibility of using your music to explore a moment (be that a moment of music, a moment of feeling) through multiplicity and association. This, for me, is one of the most exciting things about your work. What kinds of feeling are you both particularly interested to explore? What sorts of emotions (from a space or another musical piece) grab you? And from a point of view of technique, how do you construct analogies between one kind of feeling and another—be that comparing types of musical feelings in say Barber or Vivaldi, or types of spatial feel­ings of Roman Churches into sound?
                    
AN Feelings are so hard to talk about! But I suppose it’s only fair that you ask, as the Companion Guide is a piece filled with my own very  personal feelings. In thinking back on the spaces that inspired the Guide, I keep returning to one feeling in particular which, for lack of a better word, I might call “won­der.’’ Wonder comes in so many shapes and sizes, and I’m not even sure I can accurately define what it is (part surprise? part mystery? part vulnerability and losing oneself in some­thing else?), but I think it is in many ways is trying to capture—or perhaps portray or recreate—a moment of wonder from my time in Rome. As far as the technique of constructing relationships between the various feelings/moments/movements in the piece, I think those relationships happened very much on the fly during the writing process. I definitely wanted each movement to exist in its own self­-contained world, but as the piece progressed it became clear that those worlds were in dialogue with each other in ways I hadn’t anticipated. 
                    
TH Andrew is touching on an idea that is important to both of our pieces, and I think to our music in general—namely that move­ments (or statements, feelings, or moments) exist as self­-contained elements in a constel­lation, and that a big part of experiencing the piece as a whole comes from trying to fill in connections between them. It’s a question of how each explored moment—whether a disembodied shard or an intricate and polished crystal—relates to the larger web of associations. To me, this is directly related to our experience with the food of nonstop information in our lives. We all live in the same world with the same information, but there are infinite combinations of ways to curate, sort, filter, absorb, digest and process it. An individual perspective, then, comes from a particular collection of ingredients in a particular order.
                    
I love the way Andrew explores this principle in Companion Guide. The piece is an omnivorous collection of sound-­worlds and intricately constructed forms, many of which wouldn’t belong together anywhere else other than in the head of Andrew. It’s both rigorous and seemingly unencumbered by a need to be “unified” into a single coherent statement, yet I am completely convinced by each move­ment’s relationship to the larger whole. And I found myself asking: What is that magnetism that binds them together? Companion Guide inspired me to poke at whatever that mysteri­ous thing was/is, and Law of Mosaics is the end product of that poking. (And this is the most important reason I think these pieces go well together on an album.)
                    
Regarding the construction of analogies, one thing I learned from Andrew’s music was how convincing and provocative it could be to lay disparate artifacts next to each other without over-­explaining them. Sometimes a preoccupation with creating totally rock-­solid analogies can cause a composer to overdo it on transitional or “unifying” material. 
                           
I’m more interested in letting a loose or ambiguous relationship emerge by virtue of coexistence, and if all the connections don’t always make a solid equation at the end it doesn’t really matter to me as long as they’re authentic. (Real life is messy, I like it when music is too.)

RD I’m feeling much sympathy with and interest in how you both are talking about these ideas, though you both are basically giving me a sort of “well, isn’t that an interest­ing question” kind of dodge. What I’m trying to get at is something specific and techni­cal about your musical languages, how you guys go on fabricating a feeling using your particular compositional practices to convey something of what “wonder” or “my complex relationship with Samuel Barber” feels like. Can you be baldly technical about it? Know­ing that your way of fabricating a feeling in music may resonate completely differently with someone else, how do you go about constructing it in sound?
                    
AN I can’t predict how anyone else is going to feel during my music, but I do have a sense of how music makes me feel—how certain ges­tures, timbres, harmonic shifts and rhythmic grooves move and excite me as a listener—and I draw on that experience all the time when writing. I find deep pleasure and satisfaction when I hear a piece of music break out of the frame it has set up for itself, be that a modu­lation from one key to another, or a change in rhythm, or texture, or range, or whatever. I plan these “break out” moments a lot in my own music because I know I will find them satisfying, and I hope my listeners will too.
                    
The last movement of the Guide, for instance, spends nine minutes in strictly diatonic G Major. In its last three phrases the piece abruptly moves to an entirely different key, and this for me is a classic ’’break out’’ moment. Granted, this kind of modulation is like the oldest trick in the book, but it is one that I still find effective so I use it all the time. I think each movement of the Companion Guide might have a moment like this (not all having to do with pitch and key centers, of course). I haven’t stopped to think about it in quite these terms before, but I can see that this technique of the frame and the “break out” is something I often employ to recreate a bit of the wonder that initially inspired these pieces.
                    
TH In Law of Mosaics, I wasn’t as motivated by setting up rules and finding poignant ways to break them as I was by finding the perfect way to juxtapose or overlay elements that didn’t “belong” together, then using them to create a compelling enough sound that listeners would be tricked into being comfort­able (or at least continuously curious) in an uncomfortable context. So, achieving that was largely a matter of planning to find the perfect sound-worlds—ones that compelled me on a purely sonic level (as much as that’s possible). For instance, before I wrote the third movement I used Ableton Live to slow down recordings of the Barber and Vivaldi in a million different ways, found a few versions that I could bliss out on for a while, then finally picked the spots I would most want to immerse in sonically. After that, I experi­mented with different ways to layer them, ultimately settling on a scheme that would sort of pit them against each other tonally and timbrally (I chose some very senza vibrato ­clean cut Baroque arpeggios to clash with those climactic rising Romantic chords in the Barber). I wanted to scrawl on the source material enough that the original would only peek through once in awhile, so that was a big consideration when placing everything and figuring out which excerpts to use. And it wasn’t till all of that was done that I figured out how to write it down for an actual orches­tra to play.
                    
RD By way of conclusion, would each of you briefly reflect on the other’s music?
                    
AN Ted’s music is fearless. I love the fact that I can always hear him pushing on something, be it me and my assumptions and desires as a listener, the players and the boundaries of their technique, or himself and his composi­tional safety zone. No one gets an easy pass in a Hearne musical experience, and I like that.

I also like that Ted’s music asks questions he doesn’t already know the answers to. It seems to me that his creative intent is not so much to show us something as to get us to think, to inquire, to probe a web of issues along with him in musical real time. That his work resists big conclusions and cathartic summations is proof—to my ears anyway—that he values the journey more than any one of its many destinations.
                    
TH Andrew’s music is very expressive, very well crafted, and full of brilliant (but entirely non-academic) ideas, and the degree to which all these qualities are fused is mind-­boggling to me. One never seems to be in service of the others. His extremely high level of skill often hides the fact that he is constantly asking his musicians to perform high­-wire acts; I love that he tricks my ear like that. Even when his music sounds free and luxurious, he never gives his musicians room to zone out. I respect that immensely.
                    
Sometimes I wonder how this music can feel so perfectly suited to the moment in which I’m listening to it (and thus con­temporary), but also be steeped in such an unabashed love of classical music. Part of it may be that Andrew’s music often deals with the real relationship between a musician and their actual instrument, and you can hear a struggle and concord between them being worked out in live time. Finally, I really admire how naturally Andrew translates the ideas in his head to real sound in a real space. His connection to acoustics and the realities of classical instruments is so good that it can seem like a superpower, but he always applies it so simply and effectively that once you hear his music, it seems like the most obvious thing in the world. The definition of gifted.
                    
Interview conducted throughout Spring 2014, then condensed and edited. 

The American Experiment

Tonight's program features a new arrangement of Dvorak's "American" Quartet by Sarah Darling, who writes a bit about it here. Enjoy! 

I remember clearly the first time I heard the phrase "The American Experiment." I was overseas at the time, living in the Netherlands. It was eye-opening to think of my country in that way, as a thought that was slowly coming to life, something hugely idealistic and bold and new that still (after two centuries!) seemed to the older countries as if it was taking its very first breaths. An experiment is dynamic, not static; something that you participated in. America's something that you do. 

Tonight, A Far Cry is playing a concert of music inspired by that idea, and by the vast landscapes of the West. A central part of that program is Dvorak's incredibly well-known and universally beloved "American" Quartet - which has, for better or worse, been arranged for string orchestra by yours truly. Talk about an experiment! Take a piece that everyone can sing, and that everyone played when they were 14, and that everyone has strong ideas about - and see if there's even more to be found in there! It would be ridiculously audacious to even try, except that hey, that's the point. 

In making an arrangement, figuring out when to use big forces and when to use small forces is part of the game. When to let a single voice carry the group, and when to support the thought with the lush sound of an entire section - and how to transition between the two. Some of my wilder ideas, like adding one player in after another in a certain spot, got nixed by the group at large. Heck, that's democracy at work (another aspect of our fine country) and 'twas probably for the best. Once we started workshopping the arrangement together, all sorts of extra ideas started blossoming, and some of them were fantastic. 

The trickiest thing to "experiment" with is adding a bass part into the whole mixture. Adding a lower octave where one was never originally there is sort of like giving the work a high-functioning exoskeleton. It's a little different from building the skeleton in from scratch (as you'd do if you were writing an orchestra piece) and yet, functionally, every piece of music has an implied bass part, whether visible or invisible. 

(Paradoxically, the piece on the program that comes right before the Dvorak, William Grant Still's "Mother and Child" also has a nearly invisible - yet incredibly powerful - bass presence. To make it come to life, we have to really dream the harmony into being together. If Still's not known to you, you can say hello here - he was one of the very first African-American composers, prolific and profound, and his gorgeous music should be much, much better known!) 

Returning to Dvorak, though - his "American" story is an amazing one. The A Far Cry program notes cover it beautifully, so I won't go into much detail, but the simple fact that a Czech dude came to this country with the intention of discovering what music made it "tick" is one that I still find extraordinary. One the one hand, who would dare? Maybe only an outsider. Dvorak in America, listening to spirituals, listening to native songs, listening to birdsongs(!), taking in the rich tapestry of shared experiences that already defined the country at that time. A lonely man reaching out to an entire country in friendship, while missing and longing for his own.

Still, he kept at it, and made something exquisite. In a way, there's nothing quite like those few but magnificent compositions that he wrote in dialogue with America, like the New World Symphony. A perfect storm of different musical impulses and traditions, coming together in a charged moment to create works that are incredibly unique. 

Maybe the question "What is American music?" is American music - who knows? For sure, that question challenges and inspires us to keep experimenting. Let's see what happens next. 

All my best, 

Sarah

A Chat with David Shifrin

We were thrilled when David Shifrin agreed to come play the Copland Clarinet Concerto with A Far Cry. His extensive personal experience with the piece is something that we've been enjoying all week long. We sat down for a few minutes to discuss some aspects of it with him - and now you can enter the conversation too! 

You've been playing the concerto for a long time, right? 

I've been playing this piece for decades!

Has it changed for you over that time? 

Of course, it changes every time, and it's always great. I think the big question about this piece is always: since it was written for Benny Goodman, should it be played like jazz? Or should it be played very strictly? Fortunately, we have two recordings of Goodman playing the concerto with Copland conducting, and you hear that it was written for Benny, and that there are certainly some jazz-inflected things. But he takes the score quite literally and plays elegantly.

The first movement has this broad, lyric, quality and this mesmerizing, Satie Gymnopedie feeling. (Satie and Copland were in Paris at the same time!) In the cadenza and in the second movement, the question is always how much liberty to take, and of course there are many different opinions on that - and many are valid! I try to play it in as lively in a fashion as possible but still to play in the fashion that I think was intended by Copland. I never played this piece with Copland, although I played other things with him, and I worked with other clarinetists who did the piece with him. I have a sense that you want that jazz inflection but that you don't want to start adding notes and improvising in the cadenza… although on the other hand, why not? But then it becomes a whole other piece. 

What's the takeaway from working with Copland? Any special memories? 

He was always very kind, and I knew him as a student in two different places. We spent a week in Interlochen doing Appalachian Spring and some other pieces. He was very exacting and demanding of the students. At the same time, he was thoughtful, and very generous with his time, eating lunch with everyone and hanging out. Then I got to work with him again at the Blossom center, and again... you know, I think he might have even lived in the dorm with the students! I remember him coming to meals, and being available. And he had really clear ideas about what he wanted. This is what I wrote; this is what I want you to play. 

Is this the first time you've played the piece without a conductor? 

This is the second time. We did it with a group from Yale, to celebrate Benny Goodman's hundredth birthday, we did a concert of all the concert music that he had commissioned or premiered, at Zankel at Carnegie Hall, in 2009. Ida Kavafian led a conductorless orchestra - and Liesl was a student in the orchestra at that time! 

Is there anything in particular audience members should listen for? Anything special they'll enjoy? 

Well, it's really three distinct pieces within this one work, played without pause. The opening is just etherial - just let it flow - and then the cadenza - you can root for me, because it's really a piece unto itself! A really extended clarinet cadenza is quite unusual. Then the most Latin American jazz, and swing influences, are in the last part of the piece, and I think it's fine if people want to tap their feet - i don't know what the rules are for dancing in the aisles at Jordan Hall! 

West of the Pecos notes

DAVID DIAMOND (1915-2005)
ROUNDS FOR STRING ORCHESTRA

In 1944 America was in the grips of World War II. Dimitri Mitropolous, the renowned conductor, wrote to David Diamond, “These are distressing times. Most of the difficult music I play is distressing. Make me happy.” Diamond’s response was Rounds.

Diamond was born in Rochester, New York, and went on to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Eastman School of Music, and in Paris with the legendary Nadia Boulanger. He, in turn would teach as a member of the composition faculty of the Juilliard School. For a time, his music was performed frequently, championed by Leonard Bernstein, amongst others, including Virgil Thomson who wrote in The New York Herald Tribune, “Composers, like pearls, are of three chief sorts, real, artificial and cultured. David Diamond is unquestionably of the first sort; his talent and his sincerity have never been doubted by his hearers, his critics, or by his composer colleagues.”

The title is re effective of the style, a round where the violins open and the low strings echo in return, and the music accomplishes its charge with aplomb: it is unabashedly exuberant throughout. Rounds became Diamond’s most well known work, and for good reason: we could all use a little happiness from time to time.

AARON COPLAND (1900-1990)
CLARINET CONCERTO

Benjamin, “Benny,” Goodman was born into poverty in a working class immigrant neighborhood of Chicago about which Jane Addams lamented, “The streets are inexpressibly dirty, the number of schools inadequate, sanitary legislation unenforced, the street lighting bad, the paving miserable and altogether lacking in the alleys and smaller streets...Hundreds of houses are unconnected with the street sewer.” Nonetheless, his father prioritized music, and enrolled Benny in clarinet lessons affordably offered at their local synagogue. The rest, as they say, is history. After becoming the “King of Swing,” in the jazz world, and taking that art form to its first concert outing in Carnegie Hall, he decided to return to his classical training. In April of 1938 he released a recording of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A major with the Budapest Quartet and embarked on taking formal lessons again at the age of forty—a true testament to his thirst for learning and expansion of musical vocabulary. He also began commissioning classical composers for music to perform: Béla Bartók, Malcolm Arnold, Morton Gould, Francis Poulenc, and Aaron Copland.

It was 1947 when Goodman approached Copland, who had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Appalachian Spring just two years prior, to write a clarinet concerto for him. A year later it was delivered to Goodman, who was uncertain about his ability to pull off the difficult technical passages of the work. Copland made some changes, but it still took until 1950 for Goodman to perform it—and even then, he did it on radio with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Fritz Reiner. The public premiere took place a few weeks later with clarinetist Ralph McClane and the Philadelphia Orchestra led by Eugene Ormandy.

WILLIAM GRANT STILL (1895-1978)
MOTHER AND CHILD

During his tenure at the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, Dvorák’s students included a large number of talented African American musicians and composers whom he encouraged unreservedly, believing that they were the heart of the “American” sound. One of them, Maurice Arnold Strothotte gained Dvorák’s utmost respect as “the most promising and gifted” of his pupils. Other students included Will Marion Cook and Henry Thacker Burleigh. These young composers all blended the sounds of spirituals and plantation songs with the great European classical traditions, and while they experienced certain levels of success for the art they produced, they also met with resistance.

William Grant Still was born in Woodville Mississippi in 1895— the year Dvorák departed from New York to return to Europe. An early tragedy robbed him of his father when he was only three months old, but when his mother re-married, it was to a good man who treated Still like his own son, taking him to performances, purchasing records, and generally encouraging his musical interests. He would go on to enroll at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music after receiving a Bachelor of Science degree at Wilberforce University (pacifying his mother’s wishes for medical school), and eventually studied composition with George Whitfield Chadwick (who, incidentally, would be appointed Director of the New England Conservatory in 1897), and Edgard Varèse.

After collaborating with some of the biggest stars of the blossoming jazz scene in New York City, including Fletcher Henderson’s band, Still commenced on a set of “firsts”: the first African American to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the first African American to have his opera performed by the New York City Opera, the first African American to conduct the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra. His sizeable musical output includes five symphonies, eight operas, and musical arrangements for films including Pennies from Heaven (starring Bing Crosby), and The Lost Horizon.

Mother and Child was originally a movement from Still’s Suite for Violin and Piano, composed for the husband and wife violin and piano duo of Louis and Annette Kaufman. All three movements of the suite were inspired by the visual arts of African American sculptors and painters. Mother and Child drew from the work of Sargent Claude Johnson (1888-1967). It was premiered in Jordan Hall on March 14, 1944.

ANTONÍN DVORÁK (1841-1904)
STRING QUARTET IN F MAJOR OP. 96 (“AMERICAN”)

Dvorák’s time in the United States from 1892 to 1895 was musically fruitful, with a new symphony, string quartet, string quintet, and cello concerto added to his oeuvre, but not always easy or pleasant. He adapted, but was never at ease in the urban hustle and bustle of New York City. Furthermore, it was a financially troubled visit. After renewing his contract as Artistic Director and Professor of Composition at the National Conservatory of Music, his sponsor, Jeannette Thurber (president of the Conservatory) found she was unable to pay his salary due to economic difficulties. There was, however, one “ideal spot” (the composer’s description) during his tenure Stateside: a small town in Iowa with a large Czech community called Spillville, where he spent one summer. It was there that he wrote one of the chamber pieces that would become a favorite of many: the String Quartet in F major op. 96 (“American”). Inspiration came quickly for Dvorák, having completed the full sketch of the quartet in only three days, and completing it in two weeks.

The subtitle “American” that became attached to the quartet has something of a double meaning; it not only identifies the land of its conception, but also an assignment. Dvorák had been invited to the National Conservatory for a specific reason: to decipher the answer to the question, “What is ‘American’ Music?” After all, the bedrock of concert music was Europe, and to be considered “serious,” a young artist had to spend time studying abroad with the great masters, absorbing the great tradition. Mrs. Thurber, seeing Dvorák as a composer who successfully fused his native Czech sonorities with the broader European concert music tradition, concluded he would be ideal for explaining how one finds a “national” sound profile, and how one could teach that method in the conservatory classrooms of the United States (not only forming a musical “identity,” but keeping talent at home, so to speak).

The following scenario documents that when Dvorák arrived, searching for “possible basic material for a characteristic style,” he “asked Henry Thacker Burleigh, a black student at the National Conservatory, to sing him spirituals and plantation songs from the South and he asked the music critic Henry Krehbiel for transcriptions of Amerindian melodies...In many newspaper articles and interviews he expressed his belief that a national American style could be based on such traditional elements, among which he included pentatonism in the melodic line, a flattened leading note, plagal cadences, drone accompaniment, rhythmic ostinato and strongly syncopated rhythms.”

People groups tend to maintain their culture through food and music, wherever they are, under almost any circumstances. For Dvorák, infusing his music with Czech idioms was partially a political statement of maintaining and encouraging Czech culture as the people struggled for independence from Empire (for that reason, his music was sometimes avoided and not performed in Vienna). It may strike the reader that what Dvorák sought out in America was the music of individuals who had suffered forced displacement and slavery. Additionally, what he describes are the building blocks of what we think of as America’s great art form: jazz, a style of music that was born out of African musical traditions grafted into a new world. Jazz, that relies on the strength of the individual expressing the fullness of self, supported by group toward a larger goal, each, in time, taking a turn to speak and sing and add to the art of musical conversation.

It’s not the elements of music alone that can have any nationalistic fervor, but that those elements are found in the folk music of the inhabitants of the land, and are imbued with deep sentiments, memory, and love of place. It is that feeling that makes the music of a people. Is there anything more American than a Czech man campaigning for his own freedoms coming to a country across the ocean to meet with people from various walks of life—including the grandson of a freed slave and son of a German immigrant?

Program Notes by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot. Kathryn is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music & cultural critic, and freelance writer. She is a graduate of New England Conservatory, and writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.

Photo By Dschwen - Own work, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=494305

Metaphorically Misty

As the cobbler-together of this program, let me be the first to admit: “Misty” was probably not the best choice of name, if only because the opening words, to be sung by our soloist, Dashon Burton, will be:

     The sea is calm tonight, 
     The tide is full, the moon lies fair
     Upon the straits […]

… in other words, not a cloud in sight. I’m pretty sure I assumed that, because “Dover Beach” is set in England, it must be foggy. I was not paying close attention.

And no better for the song cycle that closes the concert, Hanns Eisler’s Ernste Gesänge, which I only knew from the fabulous recording made by Ensemble Resonanz (a release that includes none other than our very own Erik Higgins, back in his formative European days). Having purchased the album online, I was deprived of the essential liner notes and translations that I might know what exactly was being sung about; all I knew was that it was downright lovely music.

Intuitively, though, I think I had a sense that the two pieces might have something in common, and there I may have lucked into some truth. First that the texts of both works deal with despairing at the state of the world. In the Barber:

     Sophocles long ago
     Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
     Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
     Of human misery; we
     Find also in the sound a thought,
     Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

Then in the Eisler:

     There is nothing that would be worthy of your efforts,
     And the earth does not deserve a sigh.
     Pain and boredom are our lot
     And the world is filth, nothing else. Be calm.

At the same time the texts are hopeful at their core, believing that humankind can do better, and that there is happiness to found in this world. Dover Beach’s final stanza begins:

     Ah, love, let us be true
     To one another! for the world […] seems
      To lie before us like a land of dreams, 
     So various, so beautiful, so new,

And the Eisler songs include this stanza, in the final poem:

     To him too the image of brighter times is announced,
     And what was long a glorious promise
     Wafts through the silence
     And makes it beautiful.

The musical settings employed by Barber and Eisler, drawing on these similar outlooks, make for an interesting contrast. Both treatments are notable for their restraint, only going full heart-on-sleeve in a few moments. Where they differ might stem from a factor outside the music, namely age: that Barber wrote his piece as a young man, as a student, whereas Eisler’s Ernste Gesänge were completed in the year of his death, his last complete work. Based on that, one senses Barber looking ahead to a life in this imperfect world, filled with a sense of trepidation and anxiety. Eisler, on the other hand, inhabits more of a philosophical and ruminative place, perhaps becoming more bitter at times, but ultimately ends truly hopeful and at peace.

Going back to the idea of “Misty,” then, the concept might be best thought of as a kind of metaphorical fog of melancholy thoughts. In assembling the program, then, I began to think about what might come out of, or result from, that place. Sometimes a walk in the fog can be invigorating, leading to youthful excitement (Dag Wiren’s Serenade) verging on ecstasy (Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa); at others, a misty day can lead us down a more introverted path, to a zen-like state (Toru Takemitsu’s The Dorian Horizon), or the opposite, to feelings of sadness and anguish (Josef Suk’s Meditation).

In that sense, the program is meant to be a miniature drama in two acts, with a bit of a Citizen Kane-like arc; beginning and ending in the mists, emerging from the first cloud drawing on Barber’s youthful energy, then returning, drawing back towards Eisler’s acceptance and wistfulness. 

To what degree this narrative will come across is anyone’s guess; lucky then that all six works are phenomenal in their own right, and not performed nearly often enough!

- Michael Unterman


Listen to recordings of Dover Beach and Ernste Gesänge

Misty notes

Notes for our "Misty" program, written by Kathryn Bacasmot. Enjoy! 

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) ::  Dover Beach, Op. 3

Occasionally, a composer comes along who seems largely untouched by the usual struggle for work and recognition. Samuel Barber was one of them. The son of a prominent physician, and nephew to an opera singer and composer, he was only seven years old when he started writing music. At nine he knew he wanted to compose professionally (famously proclaiming in a letter to his mother, “I was meant to be a composer...Don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football”). His first operetta was written at age ten (libretto provided by the family cook). By age twelve he was a church organist (a job he quickly lost for refusing to hold the fermatas). He eventually went on to study conducting with Fritz Reiner and George Szell, and after his graduation, received many commissions from a wide variety of people (including Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers, who commissioned his Piano Sonata).

Barber’s sound is a unique blend of late 19th century lyricism and tonality mixed with the rhythms, dissonances, and angularities of modernist styles. His is a lean, muscular, romanticism where even beautiful and tender melodies always seem underpinned by a singular, focused intensity (listen to his most famous piece, the Adagio for Strings, and you will hear that fundamental sonic interaction). This singular quality of sound he brought to his compositions was evident early on—including Dover Beach, which was written in 1931, during Barber’s time studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. In addition to studying piano and composition, his baritone voice gained recognition, and it was Barber who sang at the premiere.

There is something about standing on a shoreline that seems to immediately speak to us of uncertainty, change, possibility and loss all at once. Matthew Arnold’s 1867 poem, Dover Beach, expresses those sentiments set against the dramatic shoreline of towering white cliffs at the narrowest part of the English Channel. Throughout Barber’s work the shape of the musical phrasings compliments the text: pulsing, ebbing, flowing, swelling, and ceasing. When the famous British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams heard Barber’s setting one year later, he exclaimed “I tried several times to set Dover Beach, but you really got it!”
 

Dag Wirén (1905-1986) :: Serenade for Strings, Op. 11

Dag Wirén’s Serenade for strings rushes in like a warm summer breeze. Enveloping the listener in light, gorgeous melodies, it harkens back to classical and romantic works that share the title of serenade (by Mozart, Dvořák, or Tchaikovsky, for example). Having studied in Paris for three years from 1931-1934 on a state stipend from his native Sweden, Wirén had the opportunity to meet none other than Igor Stravinsky. He also became familiar with the music of the loosely associated group of French composers known as Les Six (The Six): Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre. This collective tended toward creating music with a lighter, almost neo-classical spirit in contrast with the more modernist trends that were popular amongst many artists of the time. Written only three years after his Parisian adventure, this Serenade from 1937 exudes an energy seemingly derived from Les Six’s compositional style, who perhaps influenced Wirén’s penchant for writing in this more traditional manner.  


Wojciech Kilar (1932-2013) :: Orawa

Polish composer Wojciech Kilar carved out an illustrious career as a film composer writing the original soundtracks for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola), The Pianist (Roman Polanski), The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion), and many, many more. Before delving into the world of film, Kilar was on the rise as a composer of concert music, having trained with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and coming into prominence on the world stage with fellow Polish composers Henryk Górecki and Krzysztof Penderecki.

Orawa is part of a larger group of works (not meant to be performed as a set) centering on a theme of the Tatra Mountain range that define the “natural” border between northern Slovakia and southern Poland. Having grown up in Katowice in southwestern Poland, Kilar retained a special memory of the Tatras, as do many individuals from that region, recalling the beautiful majesty of the mountains, and holidays spent in Zakopane, at the base. The other two works are Kościelec (a specific mountain peak in the range) and Grey Mist.
 

Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996) :: The Dorian Horizon

In 1889, at age 27, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) attended the Exposition Universelle in Paris and encountered, for the first time, music of the Asian continent: gamelan music from Java. The non-Western tonal system forever influenced his compositional modality. Some sixty years later a teenager in Japan, Tōru Takemitsu, discovered Western music when a military officer played a recording for him of a French chanson, and he continued to delve into learning about Western music on an American military base where he was employed after World War II. What he heard drove him to pen and paper, and he began to teach himself how to compose receiving only occasional lessons.

Debussy was very influential on the young Takemitsu, as was another French composer, Olivier Messiaen. In another twist, it was the music and writings of John Cage, whose philosophy of music and sound was informed by Asian traditions that, in turn, led Takemitsu to re-discover elements of Japanese music. As a result of these inspirations, Takemitsu’s music expresses a unique blend of chromatics, tonalities, and space (both in the use of register—high and low tones at the extremes—and silence).

String music is typically reliant upon the technique of vibrato to provide warmth of sound—akin to a human voice singing. But here, no vibrato exists. The sound is profoundly pure, and piercing, The Dorian Horizon has a sonic landscape that evokes sheets of glacial ice shifting against one another, or perhaps endless grains of sand: it has been noted that it takes its cue from the Takemitsu’s soundtrack for Woman in the Dunes, a 1964 Japanese new wave film directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara about a man who finds himself trapped in mysterious circumstances in a sand quarry.
 

Josef Suk (1874-1935) :: Meditation on an Old Czech Hymn, “St. Wenceslas,” Op. 35a

One of Suk's most famous teachers was Antonín Dvořák, who was not just a source of musical instruction and inspiration for the young composer, but the man who would eventually become his father-in-law.

Bedřich Smetana and Dvořák were two composers responsible for grafting in, and emphasizing, Czech folk idioms or programmatic elements into their compositions, and featuring them in concerts of largely German programming. As the Austro-Hungarian Empire strained under the pressure of ethnic groups grasping for more independence, this was not simply an aesthetic choice, but also a political statement via cultural assertion. Their students would follow suit, though it has been observed that Suk's compositions eventually used fewer and fewer Czech idioms, perhaps in an effort to stop comparisons between his music and Dvořák’s.

The hymn (or chorale) “St. Wenceslas” dates from at least the 12th century, with text petitioning St. Wenceslas—the patron saint of Bohemia—for protection and salvation. As 1914 dawned, the world stage was set for war on an astonishing scale. That summer, World War I loomed, and Suk observed his fortieth birthday. His countrymen prepared for battle, and he wrote this work.
 

Hanns Eisler (1898-1962) :: Ernste Gesänge (Serious Songs)

Eisler is one of the most intriguing characters in the world of “classical” music, though he is hardly ever mentioned. He was not without controversy, which has likely contributed to the silence with which he is most often greeted in conversations about 20th century composers.

With little funding, but lots of ambition, he became a student of Arnold Schoenberg from 1919-1923. Through the encouragement and support of his teacher, he was able to secure publication and performances. The relationship would grow bitter, however, with Schoenberg considering him “disloyal,” and a traitor to music, after Eisler embraced Marxism and became a member of the German Communist party. As a result of his politics, his views on the avant-garde music of his peers—and even his own previous works—changed drastically. Reflecting on his new outlook, Eisler wrote, “in our new music, one would search in vain for bombast, sentimentality and mysticism, but find instead freshness, intelligence, strength and elegance,” and, “modern music bores me, it doesn’t interest me, some of it I even hate and despise...Also I understand nothing (except superficialities) of twelve-note technique and twelve-note music”—a clear dismissal of his former mentor. For Eisler, music should not frivolously stir the emotions, but rather be functional, applicable, non-elitist, and “used for the theater, cinema, cabaret, television, public events, etc.” David Blake notes Eisler’s scores “abound with such cautionary directives as ‘without sentimentality,’ ‘simply,’ ‘friendly,’ and even ‘politely.’”

During World War II, and the years leading up to it, Eisler traveled Europe before coming to New York City to teach composition. The Mexico conservatory gave Eisler a grant to study the “function of film music,” and through his work there, he wrote the book Composing for the Films with Theodor Adorno. Returning to the United States, Eisler found work at the University of Southern California and contributed to film scores. It all came to a screeching halt when his politics landed him a meeting with The House Committee on Un-American Activities, and he was subsequently “expelled.” In many ways it was likely the best outcome for Eisler. His return after years abroad to a new Germany—East Germany—allowed him to practice the political ideology he had been preaching.

Ernste Gesänge would be Eisler’s last work. He died shortly after its completion. The texts are taken from the works of Friedrich Hölderlin, Giacomo Leopardi, and Stephan Hermlin. Eisler remarked about the songs: “It is reflection—deliberation—depression—recovery—and reflection again...It just must be done that way, otherwise it is not good. One cannot always write optimistic songs...one must describe the up and down of the actual situations, sing about it and comment on it.”

Eighteen Far Flyers Flocking

The official version of this post is on the website of the Boston Musical Intelligencer and can be read here. Complete text follows. Enjoy! 

In the expectant room a quiet composer, 18 musicians with 18 individual parts. The musicians count to 4 together, a silent “measure for nothing.” That’s the last gesture we’ll make together for most of the first movement of the new work we’re rehearsing for our concert at Jordan Hall on Friday

One by one, we Criers enter, playing quiet strings of harmonics and brief patterns of notes. We are eighteen birds, a group that is not yet a flock. Since we never play at exactly the same time, we follow a lovingly notated string of cues through the chaos of our tweets and flutters. We wonder together about how best to keep the invisible beat steady moving forward. At first, we assign the job of pulse-keeper to one individual, mirrored by others. But this is clumsy and creates a strange central point in the nearly aleatoric texture. Eventually we agree on a system where whoever is playing the cued line has the group’s attention – and in case of that person making a mistake, the next one can reset, and the next, and the next.

This whole scene, the whole conversation, the different techniques we try—it’s all somehow extremely relevant. We’re a democratic, self-conducted orchestra, and we’re getting ready to premiere a piece which is all about a group of birds learning how to govern themselves in the search for enlightenment. Lembit Beecher, the quiet composer, has known A Far Cry for a long time (and married one of our cellists, Karen Ouzounian, this past summer.) This piece he has written for us, titled The Conference Of The Birds, had its genesis nearly two years ago, and is coming to life now as a portrait, a meditation, and perhaps, a challenge.

In Lembit’s words:

The Conference of the Birds” is a 12th-century Sufi epic poem by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar. It tells a story about the birds of the world who gather together in a time of strife. Led by the hoopoe bird, they decide to set out on a long journey to find their king. Many birds desert or die along the journey, but after passing through valley after valley, the remaining 30 arrive at a lake at the top of a mountain. Looking in the lake at their own reflection, they finally see their king. I first came across it through an adaptation by the brilliant Czech-American illustrator and author Peter Sís. … What drew me to Sís’s version, aside from the expressive, textural drawings which so suggested music, was the deep sense of loss in the pages. So many birds are left by the wayside during this journey towards truth and enlightenment. Does progress or attempted progress always come at a cost?

When I began talking to A Far Cry about writing a piece, I realized this would be a perfect project for the group. Having gotten to know the group, I wanted to write music for individual personalities: each member of the ensemble has his/her own part. These parts join each other in different combinations, but just as quickly split up again. The leadership of the music, and the relationship of individuals to the group is always changing. As I wrote I thought about the power of crowds, and the value of individuality versus unity, but I also thought about the players of A Far Cry, and how much I admire the way they function as an ensemble, share leadership, and make music together.

As we reach the end of the first movement, the musical lines begin to “infect” and inform each other. The birds begin to converse with each other, and as they do, a collective pulse emerges out of the texture. As this grows in intensity and shared purpose, the birds’ intention unifies into a single powerful flapping of wings. Slowly accelerating, they reach a lift-off point and start flowing up together into the sky. The violins of A Far Cry soar higher and higher on their instruments until we can barely hear them – and barely see the flock, now impossibly far away, which has now embarked on its perilous journey.

This is only the beginning for the birds, but it gives us plenty of food for thought. How do you move from a state of stasis to a state of movement? How do you move from a collection of like-minded individuals to a group unified enough to actually be capable of powering its own flight? We’ve spent years wrestling with – and living out – these questions.

Now here we are, playing a program, anchored by Lembit’s new piece, that addresses some of these issues head on. In the rest of the concert, we present two unconventional double concertos—Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins and Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa – and some haunting “pilgrim” music; selections from the 12th-century Codex Calixtinus. The concertos, played by Stefan Jackiw and Alexi Kenney, are as much vehicles for collaboration as they are for virtuosity, and circumvent the traditional ideal of central leadership.

As Karen Ouzounian, one of the program’s co-curators, puts it:

We wanted to explore the idea of leaders, false prophets, the search for enlightenment. We have these incredible soloists coming to join us, but the pieces they’re playing aren’t exactly flashy solo concerti. Instead they have a beautiful relationship to the group where the continuo is just as important as the solo voices.

Alex Fortes, the other co-curator, goes even further:

There’s an expression which people often use who have no idea what the original context is; playing second fiddle. It has a pejorative feel to it. And one thing about this concert is that everyone onstage, including each of our soloists, is playing second fiddle at some point in the program. In a way, that’s what it’s about. Sometimes we strive for this ideal, for a strong hierarchy, some leader that will make everything better, or some smooth process. And it never works out that way. Even when things work out beautifully – there’s tension that’s always underlying our best work.

How do you move forward in a situation where all the traditional norms are called into question? Where the traditional values of unchanging, centralized leadership are not necessarily in play? (It’s perhaps worth mentioning here that A Far Cry is absolutely not anti-leader; if anything, the group is full of leaders.) One interesting first step is to “unlearn” some of what you thought you knew, and as such, it was a great pleasure to hear our soloist Stefan Jackiw say this about the Bach Double:

Fortunately, I didn’t play it when I was young! Even though I didn’t study it as a kid, though, I still felt like I had to unlearn all these years of interpretations and varnish lacquered on to the piece, and really strip it away and go back to what Bach wrote.

That ability to “unlearn” has been on beautiful display from both Stefan and Alexi all week long, as they’ve worked within the framework offered by A Far Cry, making suggestions directly to the group at large, and participating in group discussions on phrasing, tone color, pulse, character – moderated in part by the principal groups for the individual pieces.

Of course, everyone has also learned plenty in this process. After all, it only works if it works, and it works if you can share information accurately and well with each other. No matter what system you use—democratic or dictatorial —the frame needs quality content within it; interesting ideas, virtuosic execution, a commitment to moving the music forward into the best version of itself that we can render.

To return to Lembit’s piece; the end of the work demands a totally different set of musical tools than the beginning. In the opening, we had to represent a distracted, scattered, group; at the end, what remains of the flock is stunningly unified and radiant. For the musicians, that means developing a technique of playing this last section that really sounds entirely like one ecstatic voice. It couldn’t be a more different style than the one we were embodying when the work began.

A complicated work that keeps evolving and presenting us with new issues to address (and allowing us the chance to grow in the process?) Yes please! We wouldn’t have it any other way. If there’s one thing A Far Cry has learned in its first ten years, it is that challenges, even complicated ones, are usually opportunities.

- Sarah Darling 

A Chat with Stefan Jackiw

The official version of this post is on the blog of the Office for the Arts at Harvard and can be read here. Complete text follows. Enjoy! 

The self-conducted orchestra A Far Cry is playing a program that looks like a mini Harvard reunion of artists on Friday, Jan. 13 at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall. Featuring a major new work by composer Lembit Beecher ‘02, the concert was curated by Alex Fortes ‘07 and features soloist Stefan Jackiw ‘06 with Alexi Kenney in a pair of double concertos: the Bach Concerto for Two Violins (aka the “Bach Double”) and by Estonian composer Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt. Sarah Darling ‘02, another member of A Far Cry, talked with Jackiw about his training and the concert. An edited and condensed version of their conversation follows.

You'll be playing Bach and Pärt on this program. A heady pairing. 
The Bach is of course one of the most well-known pieces in the repertoire. And it's actually my first time playing the piece.

So you didn't play it when you were 3? 
No, I didn't play it when I was 3, and thankfully so. Even though I didn't study it as a kid, I still felt like I had to "unlearn" all these years of interpretations and varnish lacquered on to the piece, and really strip it away and go back to what Bach wrote. And there's so much there, such a pairing of song and dance. The second movement is one of the most songful, soaring, vocal pieces ever, and the outer movements are filled with visceral energy that I feel is connected to dance and the human body. So that's really fun to really dive into for the first time at age 31.

When you started physically playing the piece were there any "aha" moments? 
More in the dance realm, because there's this sort of innate physicality about dance, and the piece - the first movement - features a ton of string crossing that requires you to move your elbow back and forth to support the bow. And that kind of written-in physicality brings out a sense of down and up buoyancy and tension and release, which I think enhances the performance of it. So that was an interesting thing to experience, that the physicality of it actually enhances the content of the music. The Arvo Pärt is actually a piece that I've never heard before being asked to join AFC for these concerts. I find Pärt's music really soulful and touching and moving in a kind of Zen way. But it's not just peaceful Zen; there's also a kind of forlorn tragedy, something kind of sorrowful about it.

How do you see Pärt creating that sense in the music? 
There's a huge sense of space, both in terms of the temporal unfolding of the piece, but also in the range of pitches, often pairing a low note against some very high notes in the upper voices. And those two boundaries draw attention to the chasm in between. You know, this piece reminds me a little bit of some crazy NASA footage. Or like that movieGravity, where your attention is drawn to the fact hat you're just a speck in the cosmos, and the vastness — in that case, the visual universe, and in this case, the tonal/aural universe. I think this piece captures the same thing using different means.

You're originally from Boston. How does it feel to be playing here? 
I lived in Boston for the first 22 years of my life, growing up here and doing my undergrad at Harvard. And it's good to be back. I like performing in Boston because I grew up going to concerts in Jordan Hall, Symphony Hall, Sanders Theatre. There's a lot of personal history for me there, both as an audience member and as a performer. And also, there’s just something about coming home, bringing music that I have learned home. It feels nice. It feels warm. It's also fun to come back to Boston the city and experience it as an adult. When I was at Harvard, I was always on campus, and literally the day after my graduation I moved to New York. So I never explored the city as an adult. I mostly stayed where my family was, and where my school was. So it's great fun getting to know the city now with a different set of experiences.

The Conference of the Birds notes

Program notes for this Friday's concert, The Conference of the Birds, written by Kathryn Bacasmot.

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SELECTIONS FROM THE CODEX CALIXTINUS

It is thanks to a handful of codices that have miraculously survived wear and tear, weather, war, fire, or any of a laundry list of types of loss, that we have a concrete connection to the thoughts and music of the past. The Codex Calixtinus, which deals mostly with accounts of the life and work of Saint James, is attributed to Pope Callixtus II and originates from the 12th century for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, or “Way of St. James,” pathways that lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of the saint are said to be at rest.

The manuscript is divided into several books and appendixes, three of which include music. Valued as early examples of polyphony (or music with multiple lines occurring simultaneously, in contrast to the single-line chant that was typical of earlier centuries), the codex includes what some scholars believe is the first (documented) example of music for three voices.
 

JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685-1750)
CONCERTO FOR TWO VIOLINS IN D MINOR, BWV 1043

Often referred to by the simple nickname “Bach Double,” Bach’s concerto for two violins remains one of his most popular works. The exact date of composition is unknown, though it begins to appear on lists of Bach’s compositions around 1730.

A likely period for the double concerto’s inception might have been during Bach’s years working for the Prince of Anhalt-Köthen in the early 1720s. Whereas most of Bach’s employment posts revolved around composing music for the church, here his services were directed toward composing secular court music. These years produced the orchestral suites, solo partitas, and the great solo cello suites, among other works.

It is known that Bach’s introduction to the Italian concerto style began during his second tenure in Weimar, where he was employed from 1708-1717. Given his cornerstone status in the world of music today, it can be easy to forget that in his lifetime Bach barely traveled more than a few hundred miles from his hometown, and spent most of his career nurturing and developing his enormous creative capacity in environments that did not always appreciate the scope of his ambitions —ambitions not for fame, but for excellence in every aspect of music making. In an era when the only way to hear music of different composers was through live performance, and copies of music were few, Bach was fortunate enough to have found then opportunity in the court in Weimar to study the scores of the Italians, Antonio Vivaldi (making transcriptions of several of his works) and Arcangelo Corelli (who was a superstar violinist and composer known throughout all of Europe). This proved to be deeply impactful on him, as multiple works in the concerto style would be written (and re-written as Bach tended to repurpose his compositions--the “Double” eventually became the concerto for two harpsichords in C minor, for example) over the rest of his lifetime.


LEMBIT BEECHER (B. 1980)
THE CONFERENCE OF THE BIRDS

“The Conference of the Birds” is a 12th-century Sufi epic poem by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar. It tells a story about the birds of the world who gather together in a time of strife. Led by the hoopoe bird, they decide to set out on a long journey to find their king. Many birds desert or die along the journey, but after passing through valley after valley, the remaining 30 arrive at a lake at the top of a mountain. Looking in the lake at their own reflection, they finally see their king. I first came across it through an adaptation by the brilliant Czech-American illustrator and author Peter Sís. This was one of the most beautiful books I had ever seen: an adult picture book with an unusual graphic sensibility, a concise and beautifully ambiguous text, and full-page illustrations of mysterious landscapes that carried surprising emotional weight. Numerous adaptations of the original poem, including plays, children’s books and pieces of music, emphasized the story’s simple yet colorful narrative and moral didacticism, but what drew me to Sís’s version, aside from the expressive, textural drawings which so suggested music, was the deep sense of loss in the pages. So many birds are left by the wayside during this journey towards truth and enlightenment. Does progress or attempted progress always come at a cost?

I initially thought about trying to turn the story into an opera - but I realized I was less interested in the narrative scope of the story than in the emotions and visceral energy of specific moments. I also knew I wanted to write music as Sís created his drawings, with strong gestures and lots of small figures combining to form large shapes. A string orchestra seemed perfect for creating solo lines that gathered into clouds of sounds. When I began talking to A Far Cry about writing a piece, I realized this would be a perfect project for the group. Having gotten to know the group, I wanted to write music for individual personalities: each member of the ensemble has his/her own part. These parts join each other in different combinations, but just as quickly split up again. The leadership of the music, and the relationship of individuals to the group is always changing. As I wrote I thought about the power of crowds, and the value of individuality versus unity, but I also thought about the players of A Far Cry, and how much I admire the way they function as an ensemble, share leadership, and make music together. “The Conference of the Birds” is about 20 minutes long and is in three movements. The final two are played without a pause.

—LB
 

ARVO PÄRT (B. 1935)
TABULA RASA

In the earlier years of his career, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt composed his music in a modernist style, sometimes experimenting with serialism, and atonality. Soviet government officials frowned upon this, but Pärt would soon find an entirely new sound based on ancient tones. After taking time to reevaluate his compositional methods in the late 1970s, along with studying Bach, Gregorian chant, and Russian Orthodox sacred music, Pärt arrived at a new compositional philosophy that he called “tintinnabulation” (“bells”). Explaining the technique, the composer has noted: “Tintinnabulation is like this. Here, I am alone in silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played...I build with the most primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”

Tintinnabuli, the ringing/sound of bells, alludes to the mathematical division of a note’s sound wave into the overtone series, the basis of Western music theory and its harmonic progressions, which is heard in the chaotic timbre of a ringing bell. Essentially, if you strike a single note, you are not just hearing that note but an entire sequence working together (the “fundamental” and its “partials,” to use the lingo). Thus, when you hear A-natural you also sympathetically hear other tones from the A scale in a sequence of 5ths, 4ths, 3rds, and so on: A, E, A, C-sharp, E, etc.—a musical universe orbiting a single note.

For a decade Pärt was effectively silent as he studied, contemplated, and crafted. In 1977 he reemerged with three pieces using tintinnabulation as their compositional syntax: Fratres, Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten, and Tabula Rasa. He has been writing in this style ever since. Tabula Rasa, meaning “blank slate” in Latin, is divided into two sections: Ludus (“games”), and Silentium (“silence”), and was dedicated to the violinist Gidon Kremer, who premiered the piece along with violinist Tatjana Gridenko, and includes a “prepared” piano, where objects are lodged in the instrument’s string to manipulate the emission of a metallic, almost chime-like sound.

After an arresting opening where the two violins play the same pitch (A) in distant octaves the games commence. Silence and sound alternate, and everything revolves around the A pitch with one voice weaving a melody while the other outlines the triad of A minor (A-C-E). Variations on patterns occur throughout the duration, as lines are expanded, contracted, and reversed. In Silentium the lines move in pairs at varying speeds, punctuated by the prepared piano every time the solo violins, whose parts have been slowing adding notes, reach the central note of this movement: D. In the tintinnabular style, there are very few pitches employed, but their distribution in time, and their relationship to the silence that surrounds their existence, builds out the haunting beauty of the sound.

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Program Notes by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot. Kathryn is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music & cultural critic, and freelance writer. She is a graduate of New England Conservatory, and writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.