The Conference of the Birds notes

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



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.


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.


“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.


ARVO PÄRT (B. 1935)

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.


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.