Responsibility in Action

I have often wondered what truly sets professionals apart from music students in conservatories. When you are young and still learning, you go through life with horse blinds thinking that the level of playing is the most important aspect of being a professional. But since I started college and began meeting, mingling, learning, and working with professionals, I have discovered great playing is only the beginning of success. The week that I spent with A Far Cry as their fellow in Albion was an excellent example of what it takes to be a successful professional. 

The most important thing I have learned from A Far Cry is personal responsibility. Contrary to popular belief, personal responsibility does not mean to direct your focus on yourself - it is exactly the opposite. Personal responsibility is the ability to direct your focus on your surroundings and adapt as quickly and as seamlessly as possible. I was surprised that in rehearsals, the Criers did not have arguments over interpretation. Whatever suggestion anyone offered, it was rehearsed and immediately applied. It did not matter if someone theoretically disagreed with a suggestion: they tried it anyway and played it so convincingly as though it was their own idea.

Criers trust each other in performance 100%. If someone takes a risk, everyone goes with them. It is this alertness and personal responsibility in catching others that creates an extremely meaningful artistic experience. You can rehearse something from sunrise to sunset but in the end, no two performances are ever the same. If you are too busy reading your own notes and are not present, you will not be ready to face a challenge or catch a curveball. This is something that students in conservatories still lack: to substitute their concern for their own notes and playing for presence and adaptability. It is never the environment’s fault - it is only your mistake that you were not there to witness it and catch on. 

The second important thing I learned from A Far Cry is personal responsibility in management. In order for A Far Cry to exist, everyone needs to take part in sharing, voting on decision making, leading rehearsals, and sticking to the rehearsal plans. Everyone in the group is a leader and plays a crucial role, even if it means taking turns to listen out for balance. Everyone takes on a personal responsibility to be a leader not for their own ego-boost but for the greater common goal of creating a quality product.

If there’s one huge point that conservatory students like me can take away from a week with A Far Cry is that personal responsibility means using your peripherals, understanding how you fit into a whole, and taking risks. Until now, I often translated being “responsible” as not doing anything to make others uncomfortable or not deviating from what is expected. However, being responsible as an artist means that you are a role model, inspire others to be fearless, and let them know you’ve got their backs. The only way you can inspire others to get out of their comfort zones is if you step out of that box first and be constantly ready for the unexpected. Only then a great performance like Albion can happen.

- Gergana Haralampieva 

Gergana Haralampieva is a violinist, and one of A Far Cry's Season 11 NEC Fellows

Guardians of the Groove Program Notes

Program notes by Kathryn Bacasmot, Michael Atkinson, and Sufjan Stevens, for A Far Cry's program Guardians of the Groovethis Saturday, January 27, 4pm at St. John's Church in Jamaica Plain and Sunday, January 28, 1:30pm at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

 

JEAN-BAPTISTE LULLY (1632-1687) :: SUITE FROM ACIS ET GALATÉE

Lully lived a fortunate life until an unfortunate injury brought about his death at the age of fifty-five. Equipped with cleverness, humor, musical talent, physical gracefulness, and a keen sense of drama, he lifted himself from the common workman’s livelihood of his Italian childhood. He was born Giovanni Battista Lulli in Florence, and would land in the home of a member of the French royal family when he was merely fourteen years old (as an Italian language tutor). He would not return, and would die a naturalized French citizen.

Every step of the way he charmed those around him, and drew their favor in the form of artistic educational opportunities—music lessons and dance lessons—that led to his talents being noticed and rewarded with increased responsibilities around the royal household. He would eventually encounter the young Louis XIV (six years his junior), and maneuver his way to becoming Louis’ favorite musician at court. Once Louis was crowned King, Lully secured the position of surintendant de la musique de la chambre du roi, overseeing musical activities at court, as well as the King’s famous string bands. He would enjoy the King’s encouragement and support almost his entire career. 

With his talent and resources, Lully’s outstanding compositions set the bar for the French Baroque style with regal musical overtures and epic musical tragedies and comedies for the theater and the opera. One of his last operas, Acis et Galatée, a love triangle between gods and mortals, was written immediately following a falling out with Louis XIV over his disapproval of a court seduction that Lully pursued. It may, or may not, have ever been seen by the King. Its private premiere was for the entertainment of a hunting party at the château of Anet for the dauphin. It was later performed at the Paris Opéra on September 17, 1686, six months before Lully’s death.

    —Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot


SUFJAN STEVENS (b. 1975) :: SUITE FROM RUN RABBIT RUN (ARR. MICHAEL ATKINSON)

Originally premiered by the Osso String Quartet, these four movements became a point of departure for many other projects, including an orchestration for Justin Peck and the New York City Ballet’s production of “Year of the Rabbit,” which premiered in 2012; and, in a mixed ensemble arrangement by yMusic. This expanded version is based on Atkinson’s original arrangements. In a program note for the premiere in 2007, Sufjan Stevens shared his thoughts:

“... this arrangement draws upon the material of the original suite, including colorful extended techniques and textural improvisations in tandem with more conventional sounding music. They are uncomplicated impressions of theme and variation that bring to light, through careful condensation, a project previously heavy laden with conceit… Atkinson’s scores do not, however, ignore the experiments of sound and improvisation that inspired many of the original recordings.  His arrangements paint abstract sequences, odd shapes and angular arches on the staff, open to interpretation.  The strings are forced to mimic gestures previously generated by the computer: sampled beats, digital glitches, and mechanical guffaws.  At one point, for example, the players are cued for a few bars of shushing, imitating the sound of rain.

“These songs… have become, to my ears, more alive, more capable, more fully realized than their original recordings. It’s as if, in initially piecing them together, years ago, in the solitude of my computer, I was constructing Frankenstein’s monster, with the wit and wildness of a mad scientist. Atkinson’s arrangements distill these vulgarities in vinegar, pulling away all the ugly skin lesions, the moles, the gimmicks, the stitching, and the layers of gauze.  What is revealed is a full-grown man, with consciousness, hair parted to the side, a track suit, running shoes, a baseball cap.  It’s alive! It’s
alive! Of course this is where the analogy breaks down, for these songs are more animal than human.”

— Michael Atkinson and Sufjan Stevens


ANTONÍN DVORÁK (1841-1904) :: SERENADE FOR STRINGS, OP. 22

Dvořák found fame as a composer later in his life, spending the earlier portion of it making a living as a teacher and orchestral musician (he even played under the baton of Richard Wagner three times). It wasn’t until he was thirty-years-old that he openly revealed his true career ambition: to be a composer. 

There were a few setbacks along the way toward this goal, including being denied the opportunity to meet and study with Franz Liszt, but eventually things began to come together. Often artists have their one big break, and Dvořák’s came in 1877. Since 1874 he had applied yearly to the Austrian State Stipendium, and consistently received the honor of a financial award. In 1875, Johannes Brahms, who was the prime of his career, stepped in to replace one of the jurors. This was Dvořák’s chance to impress, and two years later when Dvořák submitted his application that included the Serenade for Strings along with the Theme with Variations for piano, and Moravské dvojzpěvy (‘Moravian Duets’), Brahms wrote to his publisher, Fritz Simrock saying, “As for the state stipendium, for several years I have enjoyed works sent in by Antonín Dvořák (pronounced Dvorschak) of Prague… Dvořák has written all manner of things: operas (Czech), symphonies, quartets, piano pieces. In any case, he is a very talented man. Moreover, he is poor! I ask you to think about it!” Brahms also mentioned to his friend, the famous violinist Joseph Joachim, mentioning the only other serenade Dvořák wrote (this time, for winds): “Take a look at Dvorák's Serenade for Wind Instruments… I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do… It would be difficult to discover a finer, more refreshing impression of really abundant and charming creative talent. Have it played to you; I feel sure the players will enjoy doing it!”

The rest, as they say, is history. With these auspicious stamps of approval Dvořák rapidly gained an audience for his music. He became a rising star, and would eventually be one of the most respected Czech composers in history. It is no wonder that the Serenade for Strings, with its luminous lyricism would help launch his career, and still be one of the most beloved works in the repertoire well over one hundred years later.

    —Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot

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

Guardians Welcome

The following is an email sent to the musicians playing this week's Guardians of the Groove set (with shows this Saturday, January 27, 4pm at St. John's Church in Jamaica Plain and Sunday, January 28, 1:30pm at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum). We hope you enjoy this sneak peek into our process and nerdy inner goings on.
--- 

Hi all,

Grateful, as always, to be playing this set with you! I just thought I'd lay out an introduction/re-introduction to this program.

Guardians of the Groove was the result of A Far Cry's internal "Dvorak Serenade Award" which we created to give a guaranteed spot to a program with that piece after we realized we'd been avoiding it for several seasons. My own theory as to why we've steered clear is that it's maybe too sweet of a piece, but in a way that's curiously at odds with Dvorak's music in general which tends to be rhythmically driven and a bit punchy; there's almost always some crunch and acidity to balance out the sweetness. I happen to think those qualities do exist in the Serenade, they just aren't always emphasized because the gorgeous melodic lines tend to dominate the list of priorities, but I'm hoping we can bring some of the old groove back: the motoric chug of the first movement, the off-kilter syncopations in the second, the hyper skip of the third, and then a kind of combination of all three in the last, the motor, the punchy syncops, and the ecstatic undercurrent.

The format of the program, then, is a bit of a throwdown, with the first half made up of pieces that are very groove-forward to hopefully coax those qualities out of the Dvorak. The first half pieces are also neatly placed at historical bookends, with Lully at one end, the leader of the original, archetypal dance band, and a brilliant new Michael Atkinson arrangement of parts of an electronic dance music album by Sufjan Stevens at the other.

A little more detail on the Lully suite. It's from an opera, Acis et Galatée, about two young lovers making a go of it on the island guarded by the cyclops-giant Polyphemus (who'll later have his eye put out by Odysseus). Spoiler alert: Polyphemus has a thing for Galatea and so he tosses a boulder on Acis, but he comes back as a river god so s'all good. The structure of the suite is: serious intro - fun times - music about cyclops giants - serious outro.

Playlists in Spotify and YouTube formats there.

The Lully edition we're playing off of is my own, and I've made cuts to some of the material, especially the last passacaglia/chaconne, and a couple of the inner movements. We'll go with the parts for now, but things might change.

Finally, I want to open things up to start thinking about groove in general. I was recently introduced to the funk band Vulfpeck, who, as I understand it, are sort of a... historical performance group. They studied with some of the legends of funk and motown, and sometimes have them on as collaborators, with the goal of getting to the essence of groove in a very pure way, often taking the focus off songs and lyrics to hone in on that aspect. Here's a vid to contemplate. Maybe I'll send one-a-day?

Feel free to chime in here with thoughts, strategies, questions, requests, etc.

Thanks guys!

Michael

Albion Program Notes

MATTHEW LOCKE (1621-1677), HENRY PURCELL (1659-1695)

SONGS AND INCIDENTAL MUSIC

 

Opera as a genre is often said to have arrived at the first full expression of its creative and artistic

potential in Italy with Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 production of L’Orfeo. It was soon all the rage

in court entertainment for the European continent, but it took a while to take hold across the

channel in England. Two reasons that are sometimes noted for this slow embrace were the

English love of the spoken word in the form of plays and dramas (Shakespeare died in 1616),

and the national turmoil of the Civil Wars that resulted in the Puritan influence of closing the

Theaters.

 

So what were the English doing for court entertainment? A genre called the masque was

immensely popular, as were semi-operas. The masque was a precursor of the opera, and the

semi-opera landed somewhere between. Both relied on stage machinery, songs, and dances, and

included spoken dialogue, whereas opera nixed the spoken dialogue in favor of recitative in

order to have the entire production sung.

 

Two of the great composers of the English royal court who were responsible for such

entertainments were Matthew Locke, and his successor, Henry Purcell. Locke studied with

members of the Gibbons family (their most famous son being Orlando), and Purcell came from a

family of musicians all associated with the chapel royal. Though Locke has, unfortunately, faded

from the public eye, during his lifetime he reached the pinnacle of success writing the coronation

music for Charles II, and as master of the King’s 24 violins. Purcell gained wider, and more

permanent, fame, and is still heralded as one of the greatest English composers to ever

live—particularly for his talent in setting the language to song (Benjamin Britten was a life-long

fan). Dr. Charles Burney, the English musicologist who penned his massive history of music just

as the American colonies were declaring independence, wrote that Purcell was “...as much the

pride of an Englishman in Music as Shakespeare in productions for the stage, Milton in epic

poetry, [John] Locke in metaphysics, or Sir Isaac Newton in philosophy and mathematics.”


 

RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

CONCERTO GROSSO

 

Vaughan Williams came from a prestigious line of English families, particularly on his mother’s

side. Margaret Vaughan Williams’ maiden name was Wedgwood. She was the daughter of

Josiah Wedgwood III, grandson of the famous English potter Josiah Wedgwood, and Caroline

Darwin, older sister of Charles. Unlike some young composers who were pressured to go into the

family profession (in this case, law), Ralph was encouraged to indulge in his love for music. He

studied piano, organ, violin, and viola, but it became increasingly clear that what he liked to do

was compose. In addition to eventual studies at Cambridge University, he spent some time at the

Royal College of Music, and also went abroad to study with Max Bruch and Maurice Ravel. It

was his dissatisfaction with mimicking the style of others, as well as his love for English folk

songs and interest in the history of English music stretching back to the Renaissance that would

help him find his own musical voice—a quest he pursued alongside his friend and fellow

Englishman, Gustav Holst. The result would be some of the most beautiful, lush, music ever

written (Fantasia on Greensleeves, Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, The Lark Ascending,

etc.)

 

In addition to his prolific life as a composer, Vaughan Williams was also an enthusiastic

educator. The Concerto Grosso was written for the Rural Schools Music Association, and was

premiered in 1950. In this work, the ensemble is divided into sections playing at varying

difficulty levels that are integrated within the traditional concerto grosso structure of a smaller

group called the “concertino” performing against the backdrop of the whole ensemble called the

“ripieno” or in this case, “tutti.” Vaughan Williams pairs the “advanced” music with the

concertino, the “intermediate” with the tutti and adds another grouping, “ad lib,” for the

“novice.”


 

BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913-1976)

SERENADE FOR TENOR, HORN, AND STRINGS, OP. 31

 

In 1929 E.M. Forster, the English author best known for A Room with a View, Howard’s End,

and A Passage to India, sat down in a BBC studio to begin recording what would be a series of

broadcasts about the craft of writing. Over five thousand miles away under the golden southern

California sun, Benjamin Britten and his life partner, the vocalist Peter Pears, read an essay

entitled George Crabbe: the Poet and the Man that Forster had published in the BBC magazine,

The Listener. That was May 29, 1941.

 

Britten was extraordinarily musically gifted from an early age (he began composing at age five)

and had a keen interest in the world of literature and poetry that would find an outlet through his

many vocal works. Discovering the life and work of Crabbe, a fellow Englishman from Suffolk,

piqued his interest. By a stroke of fortune Pears happened to come across a collection of

Crabbe’s in a bookshop. It was the author’s vision of a small seaside town portrayed in his long

poem, The Borough, which captured the composer’s imagination. Britten and Pears had come to

the United States as pacifists distancing themselves from impending war in Europe. They lived

in New York, and then California, but it was Crabbe’s hometown of Aldeburgh, and the echoes

of seaside life Britten read in the poems that “gave such a feeling of nostalgia for Suffolk” that

called them home to England. Eager to start on the new project, Britten began writing out

sketches for an opera about one of the poem’s characters, Peter Grimes, as they packed and

started on their journey across the Atlantic.

 

While busy with Peter Grimes, Britten wrote a handful of works for voice including A

Ceremony of Carols, the Hymn to St. Cecilia, and the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. The

Serenade was written for the talented young horn player Dennis Brain, whom Britten had met

and become acquainted with soon after returning to England. Brain and Pears would give the

premiere in London’s renowned Wigmore Hall on October 15, 1943. As if displaying an

overwhelming gratefulness to be back home, the Serenade’s lyrics were selected exclusively

from British poets and folk songs. That each text reflects on the evening and night (or

metaphorical night of death) indicates Britten’s acknowledgement of the serenade genre’s

historical context as music to be performed at sunset.

 

—Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot

 

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

Speaking the Serenade

Here’s an A Far Cry challenge for whoever wants to take it on! 

This Friday, we’ll be playing the magnificent Britten Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. One of the greats! Earlier this week, we were speaking about it and one of the Criers described it as one of the last iconic works for strings that we haven’t performed yet. (Of course we’ve been dreaming about playing it for years, and we’re totally totally thrilled to finally be bringing it to life with Nicholas Phan.) 

What makes the Britten so Phan-tastic? (Sorry, Nick!) 

In part, it’s the fact that Britten used six absolutely thrilling English poems - from some of the most revered poets in the language, and spanning a space of nearly six hundred years. I’ve always found English is a funny language to read out loud; as opposed to, say, French or Italian, the words don’t necessarily sit comfortably in your mouth. But as a language, it is so very very precise (more precise than beautiful, I would say) that the craft of writing poetry in English gives you a whole world of options. And these poems are rich, specific, resonant, and truly great. 

So, the challenge: Read them! Go ahead and read them out loud! 

One of the best ways to get to know a poem is to see where it leads you as you read. Certain things become so much more clear as you say them. And it’s also a wonderful way to come closer to what is happening onstage on Friday, if you yourself have said the very same words. Where do you find yourself lingering? How do you shape a certain sentence? What do you recite louder, what softer? It’s a fascinating exercise.  

So here they all are, in order, below, with a few notes from me on each (mostly just detailing some of my favorite parts.) 

Do it! Don’t be shy, no one’s listening! We believe in you! 

Here goes… 

 

Pastoral

The day’s grown old; the fainting sun

Has but a little way to run,

And yet his steeds, with all his skill,

Scarce lug the chariot down the hill.

The shadows now so long do grow,

That brambles like tall cedars show;

Mole hills seem mountains, and the ant

Appears a monstrous elephant.

A very little, little flock

Shades thrice the ground that it would stock;

Whilst the small stripling following them

Appears a mighty Polypheme.

And now on benches all are sat,

In the cool air to sit and chat,

Till Phoebus, dipping in the west,

Shall lead the world the way to rest.

 

Charles Cotton (1630–1687) “The Evening Quatrains” 

 

There are a few things that I adore about this nearly 400-year old poem. The beauty of the dominant image, with shadows making giants of us all at day’s end, is striking and intimate, and somehow evokes the approaching dark without making it seem ominous. I also love the colorful words sprinkled throughout. “Lug” and “chat” pop up so brightly and casually in the language - I had no idea they were even used at that time. “A very little little flock” is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in print, and the “monstrous elephant” is just damn fine. 

 

Nocturne

The splendour falls on castle walls

And snowy summits old in story:

The long light shakes across the lakes,

And the wild cataract leaps in glory:

Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,

Bugle blow; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.


O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,

And thinner, clearer, farther going!

O sweet and far from cliff and scar

The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!

Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:

Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.


O love, they die in yon rich sky,

They faint on hill or field or river:

Our echoes roll from soul to soul,

And grow for ever and for ever.

Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,

And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

 

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) “Blow bugle blow” 

 

First of all: the horns of Elfland?! 

Second of all, this poem feels fantastic when you recite it out loud. The words start to hum and thrum, leaping and echoing of their own accord. 

Third, I can’t get enough of the way the poem zooms closer and closer in for each stanza - the first merely descriptive, the second, addressing someone (but who?) and the last, revealing the loved one. The poem gets warmer and warmer, even as it becomes more heroic. 

Lastly: “roll from soul to soul” - so good. 

 

Elegy

O Rose, thou art sick!

The invisible worm,

That flies in the night

In the howling storm,


Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy:

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

 

William Blake (1757–1827) “The Sick Rose” 

 

I find this poem unspeakably disturbing. I’m sure Blake wanted it that way. When you read it out loud, I find it makes you slow down incrementally until the last few words seem to take an agonizing lifetime to intone, and by that time you’re probably speaking in a whisper. 

 

Dirge

This ae nighte, this ae nighte,

Every nighte and alle,

Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte,

And Christe receive thy saule.


When thou from hence away art past,

Every nighte and alle,

To Whinny‑muir thou com’st at last;

And Christe receive thy saule.

 

If ever thou gavest hosen and shoon,

Every nighte and alle,

Sit thee down and put them on;

And Christe receive thy saule.


If hosen and shoon thou ne’er gav’st nane

Every nighte and alle,

The whinnes sall prick thee to the bare bane;

And Christe receive thy saule.


From Whinny‑muir when thou may’st pass,

Every nighte and alle,

To Brig o’ Dread thou com'st at last;

And Christe receive thy saule.


From Brig o’ Dread when thou may'st pass,

Every nighte and alle,

To Purgatory fire thou com'st at last;

And Christe receive thy saule.


If ever thou gavest meat or drink,

Every nighte and alle,

The fire sall never make thee shrink;

And Christe receive thy saule.


If meat or drink thou ne’er gav'st nane,

Every nighte and alle,

The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;

And Christe receive thy saule.


This ae nighte, this ae nighte,

Every nighte and alle,

Fire and fleet and candle‑lighte,

And Christe receive thy saule.

 

Anonymous (15th century) “Lyke-Wake Dirge” 

 

Another mesmerizing one to read out loud. (PS: Here’s a translation into more regular English, with some explanatory notes!) This one to me has the aspect of a story you share with a child, with each pair of stanzas detailing what happens if you did a GOOD thing, versus what happens if you did a BAD thing. Somehow, the words themselves seem to take a fierce delight in what happens if you weren’t quite good enough. Dark, creepy, but also terrifyingly just. I love the fact that the poem details both what’s happening in the journey (towards Heaven or Hell) but also brings you back, again and again, to what has happened in your own life. I honestly can’t read it without asking myself “Wait… Have I given meat or drink? Have I given hosen and soon? Will I be OK?” And I’m sure that’s the point. 

 

Hymn

Queen and huntress, chaste and fair,

Now the sun is laid to sleep,

Seated in thy silver chair

State in wonted manner keep:

Hesperus entreats thy light,

Goddess excellently bright.


Earth, let not thy envious shade

Dare itself to interpose;

Cynthia’s shining orb was made

Heav’n to clear when day did close:

Bless us then with wishèd sight,

Goddess excellently bright.


Lay thy bow of pearl apart,

And thy crystal shining quiver;

Give unto the flying hart

Space to breathe, how short so-ever:

Thou that mak’st a day of night,

Goddess excellently bright.

 

Ben Jonson (1572–1637) “Hymn to Diana” 

 

Try not to smile while saying “Excellently bright.” You might manage it for the first couple, but by the end of the poem… well, just see. I adore the fancy language in this one - it’s like Jonson’s breaking out the good china. It’s also such a sweet relief after the two preceding poems! 

Who rhymes “quiver” with short so-ever?” C’mon, Ben! 

 

Sonnet

O soft embalmer of the still midnight,

Shutting, with careful fingers and benign,

Our gloom‑pleas’d eyes, embower’d from the light,

Enshaded in forgetfulness divine:

O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,

In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes.

Or wait the “Amen” ere thy poppy throws

Around my bed its lulling charities.

Then save me, or the passèd day will shine

Upon my pillow, breeding many woes,

Save me from curious conscience, that still lords

Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;

Turn the key deftly in the oilèd wards,

And seal the hushèd casket of my Soul.

 

John Keats (1795–1821) “To Sleep” 

 

Extra credit if you yawn in the middle of this one. Props to Keats for writing a poem in which he basically begs the god of Sleep to send him off to dreamland “in midst of this thine hymn” - before he even finishes the poem. It reminds me for no good reason of a limerick a friend of mine wrote once: 

“The secret to writing a limerick

Is always to have a good gimmick.

If your rhymer is sore

You can end on line 4…” 

But Sleep doesn’t oblige Keats right away, and then the poem takes a darker turn as we become aware of what he is trying to flee, in his search for sweet oblivion. Amazing, how you can still feel the distressed spirit of a poet hundreds of years after his death, trying to do what we all sometimes try to do - just drift off and escape it all, for just a little while. 

I love the last two lines, where he describes that moment he knows will eventually come; Sleep like a methodical night watchman, tiptoeing through the rooms, shutting them one by one with skill and care. The words are hushed and perfect, and saying (or whispering) each one of them out loud is a pleasure. 

Hey, there! 

You’re still here!

Did you read any of ‘em out loud? 

You can do it any time you want!

The challenge holds - until Friday, or after! 

 

Cheers, 

 

Sarah Darling - for A Far Cry

Giving

The process of building a career in music is often centered on “getting.” In any major city, there's a network of musicians deep in the daily toil and hustle to get every note, opportunity, concert, review, grant... the list goes on.

Of course, the Criers haven't been immune to this mentality. We couldn't have grown into an internationally acclaimed touring ensemble, become a significant concert presenter in Boston, created a Grammy-nominated label, or founded a thriving non-profit organization in ten years without a hungry sense of ambition – and a lot of sweat and tears.  

These days though, the tone of our conversations has shifted. These days, we're talking a lot less about getting and a whole lot more about giving.

During the early years, we'd walk onstage holding our breath. Did anyone come? Will they like the program? Will they think we played well? Now, when we walk onstage, we're flooded by the realization that A Far Cry has become so much bigger than us. I look into the audience and see a community of hundreds who’ve come to know our concerts as a safe space to turn off their phones, be still in their own humanity, experience beauty, and feel genuine human connection. In the maddeningly manic, disaster-strewn, noisy times in which we live, this hour of connection and contemplation takes on a sacred significance. We aren't playing to get approval. We're playing to give something – something far deeper and more worthwhile.    

This group-focus on giving has also energized our commitment to education. In our work with students on college campuses, in youth orchestras, and schools across the country, we're inviting them to listen radically, trust their colleagues, trust themselves, and fall deeply in love with music.

In 2016, we began a partnership with Project STEP, an inspiring organization in Boston committed to providing top-notch classical music training to students from underrepresented backgrounds. Criers are coaching STEP chamber groups every Saturday, and leading monthly workshops. In May, the STEP Honors Quartet, coached all year by criers, will perform on the Jordan Hall stage as part of our "Next Generation" program, and a student from the quartet will join our ranks onstage. We are so proud to be part of this growing movement to invest in our community – especially youth – through the life-changing power of music.  

Today I ask you to empower us to do more of this work. Our greatest desire for the next year is to give of ourselves, more fervently and completely, to our audiences and to every student we encounter.  Your support is the crucial fuel that can make that desire into a reality.

With gratitude,

Miki-Sophia Cloud
Violinist
A Far Cry


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Ouch my ears, pt. 3

The sham public disturbance trials are nearing their conclusion, with final arguments to be presented tonight, December 7 at 7pm, when The AFC Challenge comes to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Wholesale acquittals are expected.

In “Ouch my ears, pt. 2” we introduced the topic of dissonance, and we won’t be looking back on that front. Interestingly, though, we will be returning, philosophically, to the ideas raised relating to the first piece on the program, Philip Glass’s tonal and lovely Echorus  (see “Ouch my ears, pt. 1”): music that depicts functional systems rather narrative tension and conflict. Here, again, in works by Ligeti, Usui, and Xenakis, the music relates to concepts and sounds encountered in the real world, like the sound of a beehive, of our stomach growling, or of the wind hitting a ship’s sail.

Where these pieces are exceptional are in the ways they use dissonance to create music that is felt in an almost tactile way, and, in that, they make a fine triptych, each relating to a different state of matter: the Ligeti as vapor, the Usui as liquid, the Xenakis as solid.

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György Ligeti: Ramifications

Accused of: what is that?

Defense:

Ligeti’s Ramifications is a cloud in sound and, in that, a remarkable and complex achievement. There have been pieces dating back centuries that have depicted scenes in various states of cloudiness, Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony for instance, but these never get past the bluff called out in René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe”), that these are mere depictions or interpretations. Ramifications comes as close to debunking this as one can and maybe even succeeds, at least achieving the definition of a cloud that is “an indistinct or billowing mass.” So, when someone asks what you did Thursday night, you can tell them “I heard a cloud,” and you wouldn’t be lying.

And if, to accomplish that, Ligeti has to tune one half of the ensemble a quarter tone sharp, or abandon all tonality and pitch center, or utilize dense, complex, offset rhythms; we should grant him that.

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Shiori Usui: In Digestion

Accused of: what IS that??

Defense:

Next we get to say: “I went inside a stomach!” And to those not familiar with the animated children’s television series The Magic School Bus (specifically Season 1, Episode 2, in which the class is shrunk down and travels inside Arnold’s digestive system), this may not seem like the coolest thing ever, but it is.

Among composer Shiori Usui’s inspirations in her work are “the sounds of the human body, the deep sea, and many other weird and wonderful organisms living on Earth.” In Digestion, then, is her artful transcription of the sounds of eating and digesting food. Looping back to the earlier comparison, that the final three works of The AFC Challenge represent vaporous, liquid, and solid states (this work being liquid), the context presented is perhaps a bit grotesque, and might even elicit a groan. We need, though, to swallow those preconceptions and, again, approach this with a beginner’s mind and a spirit of fun. The spirit behind this piece truly is one of curiosity and playfulness, the childlike glee of reveling in gross things. It's not as forbidding as it sounds; despite the chomping sound effects, it won’t bite.

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Iannis Xenakis: Voile

Accused of: WHAT IS THAT???

Defense:

Here we reach the max: music both dissonant and loud, that can almost be felt physically, as a solid object. This might possibly be traced to Xenakis’s roots as an architect, when he was a partner of Le Corbusier, one of the pioneers of “modern architecture.” In his music, then, alongside the physicality of sound, is a clarity of structure and texture that ought to dispel notions that his music is at all “random,” and might even help reframe the apparent harshness as something cutting, clear, and invigorating.

With Voile, once again, is also a sort of glee in misbehaving, in the spirit of the “enfant terrible.” There are hints of popular tunes (highly discordant, of course: 2:29 in the video below), as well as classical tropes, like the final chords, reminiscent of grand Beethovenian ending (4:44).

Beyond the structure and humor, though, is also a good deal of anguish, and in this one may find it helpful to approach Xenakis’s music with a degree of compassion. As you can see in his photo, his face is scarred, and he was also blind in one eye, stemming from an injury sustained from a tank blast as a member of the Greek resistance during World War II. He was able to escape, and lived in exile from the right-wing regime that was installed following the war for over 20 years. It’s this subtext that might help us to transform Xenakis from a forbidding figure to one that's misunderstood.

We’ll leave you with a quote from John Cage, who said: “I think that people are wonderful, and I think this because there are instances of people changing their minds.” Here, then, with music that might that might not be in our usual rotation, the key is being open to that, to listen with fresh ears, with curiosity, and good humor.

(Full playlist of The AFC Challenge here.)

Ouch my ears, pt. 2

This is part two in a three-part miniseries previewing The AFC Challenge, a concert at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum this Thursday, December 7 at 7pm. The program promises to be an invigorating course of immersion therapy for those wary of the avant-garde in music (and a fun survey for those who love it).

(Read "Ouch my ears, pt. 1 here.)

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Christopher Hossfeld: “…AND ZOMBIES” from concerto GROSSO

Accused of: an 18-part fugue is not a thing!

Defense:

With Christopher Hossfeld’s “…AND ZOMBIES” we’re now getting into the meat of the program (or should we say: the “braaaaiiiiiins”), so it’s probably time to talk a little about dissonance.

The first three pieces on The AFC Challenge (by Glass, Cage, and Shostakovich) still operate within the classic dichotomy of dissonance vs. consonance, creating that familiar feeling of harmonic tension and release we're accustomed to. From this point on, though, we’ll be looking at composers who embrace dissonance, to varying degrees and ends.

“…AND ZOMBIES” embraces dissonance because it’s fun; like blowing raspberries or teasing a friend or doing a touchdown dance, it takes great glee in misbehaving. To do this, Hossfeld employs one of the most learned and advanced techniques in Western music, the fugue, to comic effect.

In a typical fugue, like those of J.S. Bach, the appeal lies in the attainment of improbable order: three, four, five, even six independent voices somehow coexisting harmoniously. It’s not only a powerful artistic statement, but a philosophical one as well, suggesting that peaceful coexistence is achievable, despite the odds.

Here then, too, coexistence is achieved... in a manner of speaking... through an eighteen-voice fugue... about zombies. 

Highly recommend, also, to listen to the full piece (approx. 20 mins.), which, apart from this light-hearted interlude, is an incredibly touching work, ending with a gorgeous, extended passacaglia. Click here to view.

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Anton Webern: 5 movements, Op. 5

Accused of: expressio-bitionism!

Defense:

“A cinquain for Anton Webern”

A.Dubs.: 
Succint, profound.
A poet versed in sound.
Novels in the blink of an eye;
A sigh.

It’s tempting to leave Webern’s "defense" on that cryptic note, but we’ll expound a bit. The cinquain (like a haiku but 2-4-6-8-2) above references a quote from Webern’s mentor Arnold Schoenberg, who said of his Bagatelles: “think of the concision which expression in such a brief form demands! Every glance is a poem, every sigh a novel in a single gesture.” This is Webern’s music in a nutshell, short in minutes, dense in content, like the famous six-word story attributed to Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

In that spirit, too, the dissonance in Webern’s 5 Movements is serious, coming as it does from 1909 and a Europe headed towards World War I. Here it’s useful to compare the music to currents in visual art. Both Webern and Schoenberg began their careers composing tonal music in an intense and highly Romantic style (pieces like Transfigured Night and Langsamer Satz), a style akin to expressionist artists like Klimt, Munch, and Kokoschka. It doesn’t take long, though, for them to move to composing in atonal and “12-tone” styles, reflecting the work of more abstract artists like Klee, Miró, and Kandinsky. Like those artists, Webern’s music is still this side of fully abstract (not yet Pollock or Rothko): there are still recognizable forms, dance types, expressive gestures, and nods to conventional harmonies, but the lines are very obscured.

Coming, as it does, pre-loaded with the reputation for being concise and dense, it might actually be advisable not to “stare” too hard at Webern’s music. Be present, rely on your trusty musician(s), and focus on the afterglow; are you left feeling disconcerted, rapt, pondering, blue? Then Webern got you.

Listen to rest of the Webern, and hear more music from The AFC Challenge here.

The AFC Challenge notes

Philip Glass (b. 1937) :: Echorus

In January 2017, Philip Glass celebrated his 80th birthday. Few other contemporary composers have had a musical influence as broad and impactful as Glass through concert works, operas, and numerous film scores. His early classical training eventually led him to study composition with the legendary Nadia Boulanger, but it was his work with the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar that shifted the way he thought about rhythm and time. The eventual result (bolstered by fellow composers who were coming to similar conclusions, like Steve Reich) was that Glass settled into a musical vocabulary that we colloquially refer to as “minimalism.” Minimalist music functions by implementing restrictions on harmonic changes — they are often few, and far between. The complimentary phenomenal effect for the listener is the sensation of wide-open space. In this context, a slight change in tonal color or density of musical texture becomes a monumental event.  
 

Echorus was adapted from Glass’s piano Étude No. 2. The composer writes in his note for the work that the title was “derived from the word echo,” and “was composed in the winter of 1994-95 for Edna Mitchell and Yehudi Menuhin.” Glass continues, “The piece is in A-B-A form and appears as a chaconne. The soloists either play the chaconne or melodic parts suggested by the harmonic structure. The music is inspired by thoughts of compassion and is meant to evoke feelings of serenity and peace.”

John Cage (1912-1992) :: “Nearly Stationary” from String Quartet in Four Parts

For all the innovation the world of music has experienced since 1952, nothing has come close to the watershed moment when 4’33”, John Cage’s silent piece, was first performed. The profundity of its statement regarding sound, listening, and the nature of music remain unmatched.

By 1950, Cage had written his Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, as well as three (there would ultimately be five) Imaginary Landscape works. Those pieces all dealt with the manipulation of sound, either through inserting objects into the strings of a piano or through some electrical means; in other words, some outside element beyond simply a human performer and acoustic instrument. By contrast, it has been observed that the String Quartet in Four Parts also manipulates sound, but through altering the approach to the instruments themselves. For example, the performers are instructed to employ a light touch and no vibrato, and two of the cello’s strings are tuned a half step down, “scordatura.” As a result, the sound strikes the ear as both ancient and modern, often shrouded in shade, occasionally stabbed with an angular insertion of volume.

The entire Quartet doesn’t deviate far from specific intervallic spans and eschews overt tension-resolution/dissonance-consonance relationships. Increasingly interested in Eastern philosophy, Cage integrated into the music the Indian concept of the seasons: preservation (Summer), destruction (Fall), quiescence (Winter), and creation (Spring), which are then reflected in each movement: Quietly Flowing Along (Summer), Slowly Rocking (Autumn), Nearly Stationary (Winter), and Quodlibet (Spring).

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) :: “Scherzo” from Two Pieces for String Octet, Op. 11

Perhaps the most famous string octet is that shimmering masterpiece written by a sixteen-year-old Felix Mendelssohn. Lesser known are these two works for the same instrumentation by an eighteen-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich. Both works show a particularly striking confidence in style for juvenilia. It seems some artists are equipped with a more direct channel to their creative voice from the start, as illustrated in an anecdote recalled by Irina Kustodieva:

They would put at the piano a small pale youth with a disobedient lick of hair on his forehead.  He sat down and started to improvise. “Mitya,” Irina would shout, “don’t invent anything - just play us a foxtrot!” Mitya was, of course, Dimitri Shostakovich . . . He submitted to the general chorus of dissatisfied voices, but in the music of his foxtrot all kinds of unexpected rhythms and intonations suddenly broke through. Kustodiev wheeled his chair closer to the piano, and bending forward to the pianist, whispered: “Just take no notice of them, Mitya, play your own thing.”

Shostakovich inhabited and cultivated both the worlds of symphony and chamber music with equal aplomb (incidentally, the op. 11 was written alongside his Symphony no. 1). Toward the end of his career, the two genres flirted with coalescence as his final two symphonies (nos. 14 and 15), and his Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti exhibited intricate interplays and pairings of instruments that were honed by years of dedication to chamber form.

Christopher Hossfeld :: “...AND ZOMBIES” from concerto GROSSO

concerto GROSSO blurs the line between chamber and orchestral music, creating multiple overlapping layers, thick dissonant chords, and a sense of rhythmic disorder and chaos. Its movements follow my emotional journey in the days after losing a beloved aunt, to whom the work is dedicated. The second movement, “...AND ZOMBIES,” is an 18-voice triple fugue. It depicts a nightmare: trapped in a demonic theater, I am forced to witness unspeakable acts performed by ghoulish creatures. The creatures are about to descend on me when a spiritual presence rescues me and wakes me up, leaving the air vibrating with glorious energy. (CH)

Christopher Hossfeld is currently the Director of Music and Ritual at Harvard Divinity School and the Director of Music at First Parish, Old Ship Church, in Hingham, MA. His compositions have been performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Yale and Harvard Universities, Jordan Hall, the Toronto Music Garden, and concerts in Montreal and Ottawa.

Hossfeld earned a Master’s degree in Choral Conducting from the Yale School of Music and a Bachelor’s in Music Composition from Harvard University, where he was a recipient of the Louis Sudler Award, given to a graduating student for excellence in the arts. In 1998, he was the only composer of twenty Presidential Scholars in the Arts.

Anton Webern (1883-1945) :: Five Movements, Op. 5

In his book, The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross notes that the aesthetic of the “New German” school “abandoned the clearly demarcated structures of Viennese tradition…in favor of a freewheeling, moment-to-moment, poetically inflamed narrative.” This inflamed narrative style would soon be viewed by a new class of composers as simply swollen. Sweeping changes took place across Europe as the 19th century concluded and the 20th century commenced. The orderly world of empires and monarchies crumbled. A specter of suspicion for anything related to these old ways spread. Disgust at bourgeois excess, vanity, and entertainments settled in artistic minds. There appeared to be a growing search for purity (one often teetering on the edge of the sinister, laying a grotesque ideological foundation for coming the horrors of the Nazis), which manifested artistically in a near rabid need for music to be released from the clutches of public consumption and given fully to the artist alone. Like Noah in the flood, Arnold Schoenberg gathered his pupils and prepared to shut the door on the degenerate audiences he felt deserved to be washed away, cleansed from concert halls. His brave new music was the 12-tone system, employing all 12 notes in a scale (e.g. on a keyboard, all the white and black keys spanning from one C to another C, higher or lower). Sound was to be emancipated from the servitude of tonal hierarchies: pan-tonality, he preferred to call it (though the term atonality stuck).

The early works of Schoenberg and one of his famous students, Anton Webern (another notable protégé was Alban Berg), owed a deep debt to their predecessors: Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss. But, as Webern honed and crafted his personal style, it is as if he developed x-ray vision, the full bodied sonorities heard in works like his early string quartet, Langsamer Satz, and his opus 1, Passacaglia for orchestra, were abruptly replaced with almost skeletal remains. Extremely abbreviated works like his Five Movements from 1909 would come to define his mature aesthetic.

György Ligeti (1923-2006) :: Ramifications

In the late 1950s, Ligeti began work on a series of compositions for a new medium: electronics. Glissandi (1957), Artikulation (1958), and Pièce électronique no. 3 (1957–58, 1996), all exhibit some of the more typical aspects of early electronic music, sharp bleeps and clangs (like R2-D2 free styling) as well as amorphous clusters of sound, floating and drifting. The latter texture found its way into works he would write in the 1960s like Atmosphères (1961) and Ramifications (1968), where it was distilled even further.

Here, we encounter sound mass. Unlike the pinpoint sound of many serialist works (by composers like Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, for example) that used all 12 notes of an octave in a variety of extremely precise patterns, outlined by silence, sound mass relied more on overall shape and shifting densities of texture and dynamics. Think of Georges Seurat’s famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. When you look at it from a distance, the tiny dots of paint transform into a crowded park on a weekend. Sound mass, in other words, is zooming out. These are billows of sound, yet not without structure. In Ramifications, the ensemble is divided into two groups, one tuned slightly higher than the other, so they are “mistuned.”

Ramifications is at once completely foreign and yet familiar to our modern ears—it’s simply a matter of context. While we are not used to hearing orchestras acoustically producing sounds like these, we don’t think it unusual to hear a rock guitarist exploiting the sound of electronic distortion. In a small way, pieces like Atmosphères and Ramifications—and certainly the early experimentation with electronic sounds that those works came from—made possible the effects we find commonplace at a rock show.

Shiori Usui :: In Digestion

About In Digestion, Shiori Usui writes:

“What would my stomach sound like?”

One day, I pondered this to myself. I bought a stethoscope and listened to it in an anechoic chamber. “Grrrrrrrrrrrruuuu. Gugyuuuuuuuuu.” I ate and drank until my stomach became active and made a satisfied noise.

The action of digestion is so embedded in our daily activity, yet we only occasionally think about it thoroughly. The process of digestion really starts from cooking, and of course when we bite, chew and drink. I looked into the action of grinding food with the teeth and it made me realize that it is similar to the action of pulling the bow over the strings of violin, viola, cello and double bass. So I tried to find ways that the different kinds of pressure on the strings could make different colors of sound. Also, some of the harmonic language used in the piece is based on spectral analysis of the sound of biting an apple and the stomach rumbling.

This piece was composed as a result of my fascination into the sound of the body and various experimentations with acoustic instruments. I hope you enjoy the experience of tuning into the body of instruments. (SU)

Originally from Japan, Shiori Usui is a BBC Proms commissioned composer and improviser based in Scotland, UK. The Times described her as a composer with “entirely individual ears” after the premiere of her piece Liya-pyuwa for piano quintet at Wigmore Hall in 2006. Since then, Shiori has been a recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including the Toru Takemitsu Composition Award (2012), a Civitella Ranieri Music Fellowship in conjunction with the UNESCO-Aschberg Bursary (2010), a composer’s residency with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Cove Park  (2012), a Birmingham Contemporary Music Group/Sound and Music composer residency (2013-2014), and a Scottish Chamber Orchestra Connect Fellowship (2013-2014). In 2016, Shiori was awarded a Ricordi Lab contract by Ricordi Berlin to publish some of her works for the next three years.

Shiori produces radical instrumental works, and has worked with motion capturing sensors and biophysical technology. Many of her compositions are inspired by the sounds of the human body, the deep sea, and many other weird and wonderful organisms living on Earth. Shiori is also an improvising vocal musician and pianist, and has performed with artists and groups such as Arve Henriksen, Ilan Volkov, Rie Nakajima, Lee Patterson, Cato and Grey Area.

Iannis Xenakis (1922-2001) :: Voile

Gustav Mahler and Franz Kafka were among those who possessed the peculiar skill of creating not just works of art, but building metaphysical alternate universes.

Xenakis had the unique perspective of someone with experience building physical structures, too, as he was thrust into working for famed French architect Le Corbusier whilst residing as a Greek refugee in Paris during World War II (being part of the Greek Resistance against the German occupation put a price on his head). The City of Light also gave him Olivier Messiaen as a composition teacher.

Trying to explain Xenakis in a few hundred words is difficult. Architecture, mathematics, a thorough disregard for traditional tonal systems, and a consuming obsession with pitch time dimensions combined and translated into music in the mind of Xenakis. It would emerge on paper as excruciatingly complex works dense with layer after layer of scientific and philosophical properties. In developing his compositional technique, he developed his own musical language (not unlike Wagner did with “leitmotif”). A dictionary of Xenakian terminology would include words like “set,” “pitch time transformation,” and “sieve.” The phenomenal results translating to the listener’s ears might sound like total chaos on the surface, but the structural musical theories at work are exquisitely detailed and elegant.

Voile (“sail”) was written in 1995, and represents one of the composer’s later period works. Not unlike a sail on a boat, it both hides and reveals as it steers. Throughout the work the strings move in opaque clusters and “sieves” (to quote Christopher Ariza, sieves are Xenakis’ “...elegant and powerful system for creating integer-sequence generators,” using them “...for the generation of pitch scales and rhythm sequences in many compositions...”), lifting briefly to reveal a fragment of melody on the horizon.

Program notes for the works by Glass, Cage, Shostakovich, Webern, Ligeti, and Xenakis written 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.

Ouch my ears, pt. 1

The AFC Challenge, happening this Thursday, December 7, 7pm at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, seeks to present and demystify gnarly, difficult, dissonant music that we adore nevertheless. So, in this blog series we’re going to ring these pieces up on public disturbance charges, then get them off on technicalities...

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Philip Glass: Echorus

Accused of: so much the same notes!

Defense:

It’s easy to grow accustomed to music that’s either functional or narrative, which is to say dance music or music that tells a story (or both). We might not even realize it, but that’s 99% of what’s out there; even if we think of purely instrumental music as abstract, a Beethoven string quartet still tells a story by virtue of its structure, built on contrasting themes and their eventual resolution, like the rising and falling action of a play.

There’s also music that’s descriptive, like Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Debussy’s La Mer. There, too, though, is a narrative (and a good bit of dance, too), in the same way that a nature documentary will still emphasize dramatic plotlines. This is where Philip Glass’s music, and a piece like Echorus, flips the script, foregoing the dramatic to instead reflect stable, harmonious systems. These kinds of systems exist in real life, only they’re often overlooked, because they work: the orbits of planets, the river’s flow, the systems of the human body, even mechanical systems like the device you’re using to read this. Nevertheless, these can still be fascinating to consider, even if they are stable, because they, too, are ever-changing, if only in subtle ways. Hence you get the repetition found in “minimalism.” It’s this contemplative, meditative state of observation, that Glass’s Echorus evokes.

 
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John Cage: “Quietly Flowing Along” from String Quartet in Four Parts

Accused of: randomness!

Defense:

Glass’s Echorus takes a step outside typically narrative music; Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts takes a step further, not only forgoing thematic opposition, but also intentional emotiveness. Of Echorus, Glass writes “the music is inspired by thoughts of compassion and is meant to evoke feelings of serenity and peace;” Cage, by contrast, was interested in writing music that would “sober and quiet the mind,” a subtle distinction, but an important one; while Glass is attempting to create a feeling in the listener, Cage is not.

To do this, Cage intentionally restricted himself, giving each instrument an extremely limited number of sonorities that he could employ, so a cello, which has thousands of different note + articulation + dynamic combinations, is whittled down to a handful. This was done to limit the “ego,” the will, of the composer, to force himself away from being able to formulate the complex combinations of sounds that form emotions in music, to make sonority the point of departure, rather than intention.

One might expect that this would create a bland result, but, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Cage’s quartet is often very impactful, only the feelings are our own, not the composer’s. It might be useful to think of this quartet as a sonic temple: a respite, and in our world an especially precious one, from the constant onslaught of outside influences that affect us and that seek to cause an emotional reaction. To be gifted this delicate, serene, sonic space, then, is incredibly special.

 
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Dmitri Shostakovich: “Scherzo” from Two Pieces for String Octet, Op. 11

Accused of: creepy crawlies!

Defense:

Yes, but so cool! Also rock n’ roll.

Listen!

 

 

Full playlist for The AFC Challenge here