30 January 2008

Finnish Tango: Sallinen’s Language of Love, Fantasy, and Fatalism

Aulis Sallinen, photo Kytoharju

P irjo Kukkonen suggests that tango lyrics reflect ‘the personality, mentality and identity of the Finnish people in the same way as folk poetry does.’ The central themes of Finnish tango lyrics are love, sorrow, nature and the countryside. Many tangos express a longing for the old homestead, or a distant land of happiness... Many critics see Satumaa as a prototype of the Finnish tango. Satumaa (Fairytale Land) is about a distant land across the wide ocean. But only birds can fly to this land of happiness; wingless man must remain chained to the soil.”
  —  Pekka Gronow, Yleisradio Finland.
S atumaa is the quintessential Finnish tango. It was written by Unto Mononen, published in 1955. The most famous recording is probably the one made by Reijo Taipale in 1962. The song has been recorded countless times, mainly by male Finnish tango singers. The most unlikely artist performing it is perhaps Frank Zappa, who played it as a request at a live show recorded in Helsinki in 1974. It was released on ‘You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 2’.”
  —  Wikipedia.

    [50-sec clip, Aulis Sallinen, Introduction & Tango Overture, Op. 74b, Virtuosi di Kuhmo, 1.8MB MP3]

    [50-sec clip, Aulis Sallinen, Introduction & Tango Overture, Op. 74b, Virtuosi di Kuhmo, 1.5MB MP3]

 Sallinen Chamber Music III-IV-V, Virtuosi di Kuhmo
Autumn drizzle and winter sunsets: symbols of hopes dashed. A world devoid of people; lilypads that stretch as far as the eye can see: symbols of a vegetal supremacy that will triumph over humankind when we have finally destroyed civilization. A wandering piano traipses through uncertain minor keys: symbol of life’s vicissitudes. There’s a fado-like, saudades-like feel to this beautiful, troubling piece—concertino, concerto-like. The boundary between small chamber ensemble writing and chamber orchestral or symphonic writing is blurred.

This piece was originally composed in 1997 for piano quintet, commissioned by the Kitakyushu International Music Festival in Japan. Subsequent versions came to have larger orchestrations—the one on this CD, for example.

 Virtuosi de Kuhmo, Summer
Sallinen’s notations on the score say that the Introduction is derived from a theme from the end of his 7th Symphony—the three-note piano figure that sprouts and pervades this whole piece. Six minutes in, we get an indication in the piano left-hand of what is to come: a change from 3/4 to 4/4 time (or, really, a polyrhythm 8/8 insidiously beat as 3-3-2 by some of the parts, against the majority in 4/4).

The lyricism persists—now with more vigor than before. And then we reach the end. The unresolved chord drifts off—these characters in the Introduction & Tango Overture were itinerants who’ve moved on? In any case, it is not a death or a real end; there is no conclusion here, only an implacable regard. Life! Stuff happens! Sometimes cinematically.

Or maybe it’s a sort of fatalism. This life will be lived by each of us one time only, and therefore Epicureanism and Exoticism are ways of asserting our cultural uniqueness and also ways of defying our eventual losses and mortality. Carpe diem! Exotisk Finnish Tango!

Virtuosi di Kuhmo, Winter
A avan meren tuolla puolen jossakin on maa,
Missä onnen kaukorantaan laine liplattaa—
Missä kukat kauneimmat luo aina loistettaan;
Siellä huolet huomisen voi jäädä unholaan.

Oi jospa kerran sinne satumaahan käydä vois,
Niin sieltä koskaan lähtisi en linnun lailla pois.
Vaan siivetönnä en voi lentää vanki olen maan;
Vain aatoksin mi kauas entää sinne käydä saan.

[There’s a land beyond the vast sea
 Where waves lap the shores of happiness—
 Where beautiful flowers always bloom;
 Where worries of tomorrow can be forgotten.

 Oh, if I could but go to Satumaa, that fairytale land,
 Never would I leave it like the birds.
 But without wings I cannot fly—I’m a prisoner, earthbound;
 Only in far-reaching thoughts can I ever go there.]”
  — Satumaa, Unto Mononen

 Finnish Tango Commemorative Postage, 1997


26 January 2008

Welcome to My Pitch Universe: Carbamazepine, Aripiprazole, and Pharmacological Pitch-Bending

Carbamazepine [Tegretol™]

H aving perfect pitch, I find listening to these [Baroque historically-informed] performances very jarring. Even when I put in Podger’s recording of Bach I had to really adjust. I can’t listen to Quarta’s Paganini 1, which is tuned up. It’s just too strange.”
  — Pieter Viljoen, 04-DEC-2006.
This wouldn’t likely be noticed by anybody who doesn’t have ‘perfect pitch’ [‘absolute pitch’]. But she was triply gifted—with perfect pitch, mild autism, and epilepsy. Having ‘absolute pitch’ was sometimes helpful—in sight-reading, for example, or a capella singing or improvising jazz. But most of the time it was a nuisance. It was especially disturbing to her to tune her violin to A415 Hz or other Baroque tunings.

Perfect pitch [also called ‘absolute pitch’] is the ability to hear a particular note (or chord) and know, without any instrument or other pitch reference, which note it is. Compare this to ‘relative pitch’, which is the ability to hear the difference in pitch between a note and a given reference (musical interval). Most people have relative pitch to some degree, but perfect pitch only occurs in about 1 per 10,000 people. Here’s how it works: I’d wake her up at 3 a.m., sing some note of my choice, and she could tell you right away that I sang A above middle-C, and I sang it flat, about 427 Hz she thought.

So she was chronically on aripiprazole (Abilify™) for her autism, and then her doctor switched her from her regular anticonvulsant medication to carbamazepine (Tegretol™).

The first two days after the Tegretol was added to the Abilify, she yelled about the piano. Said it was horrifically out of tune. Asked whether I had done something despicable to the thermostat.

Within a few days after she started taking the Tegretol, when she played the piano she felt as if each note was a half-step lower than its position on the keyboard. The notes were consonant with her internal pitch-universe, just transposed down a half-step. During that period, if you woke her up at 3 a.m. and sang your note she would tell you that it was G# above middle-C and you are flat, about 412 Hz. At that time she was taking 15 mg per day of the Abilify and 200 mg twice per day of the Tegretol. She complained that modern recordings sounded to her like the musicians were using Baroque tuning. It was disorienting—like people were trying to play ‘tricks’ on her.

And then two seizures happened in one week—so the doctor bumped the Tegretol dose up to 400 mg twice per day. Within three days each note sounded to her like it was a half-step plus a quarter-tone lower than its position on the keyboard. You woke her up at 3 a.m. and sang your note and she told you that it was G above middle-C and way-sharp, hideous, about 404 Hz. She looked at her digital tuning meter in utter disbelief. She refused to listen to certain CDs, claimed that there must be something wrong with the CD player. Said she was being sucked into a ‘black hole’, that ‘gravity’ was pulling on her mind. Hated it.

Then she developed a skin condition, ‘toxic epidermal necrolysis’ (TEN), and the doc took her off the Tegretol and switched her to lamotrigine (Lamictal™). After about 3 days following the discontinuation of the Tegretol, she said I was singing G# again. Then, a week later, she said I was singing an A, slightly flat, like I used to do. We were back in the same universe.

The neurologists, naturally, were oblivious to all of this. None of them had any familiarity with the accumulating evidence of a carbamazepine-activated effect on the peripheral auditory system, which increases the sensitivity to low-pitched sounds and causes the altered pitch perceptions. We only found out about that ourselves, by searching around on PubMed and elsewhere on the web.

Most of the journal articles and scientific reports say that musical performances by people with perfect pitch who are on carbamazepine are heard as a semitone lower than they are in actuality. The condition is probably a lot more common than the occasional case-reports would suggest. If my friend had not been able to discern absolute pitch, she would’ve been unable to detect a lowered pitch perception.

Functional MRI (fMRI) imaging of the structure in the brain called the planum temporale shows asymmetries that are associated with perfect pitch, but no fMRI to-date have been performed on people with perfect pitch who are on carbamazepine.

Limb, Fig. 9, functional MRI mages of ‘planum temporale’ regions of brains, of a musician with absolute (perfect) pitch [AP-MUS] and an individual lacking absolute pitch [N-MUS]
Most of the medical literature reports of pharmacologically-induced pitch-bending involve Tegretol by itself. I can’t find any reports that involve two or more anticonvulsant medications. I can’t find any reports that involve a drug used for autism-spectrum disorders, like Abilify. I can’t find any reports that involve Abilify with an SSRI or other antidepressant.

And even the case-reports for Tegretol don’t really address the dose-ranging aspect. When you go from 10 mg/kg/24h up to 35 mg/kg/24h (to 1600 mg/24h, say), for example. None of the reports addresses dose-escalation related pitch-bending, like what my friend had.

Probably the most comfort we got came from the recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) last Fall, from the UCSF team who’ve been conducting a large study of absolute pitch for several years. Helped us, at least, to know how ‘not alone’ we are.

Athos, PNAS 2007, Fig. 5, Percentages of pitch cues unanswered as a function of percentages of pitch cues correctly identified for each pitch class, from 981 perfect-pitch endowed subjects.
Side-effects may include dizziness, drowsiness, disturbances of coordination, confusion, headache, fatigue, blurred vision, visual hallucinations, transient diplopia, oculomotor disturbances, nystagmus, speech disturbances, abnormal involuntary movements, peripheral neuritis and paresthesias, depression with agitation, talkativeness, tinnitus, and hyperacusis. ‘Hyperacusis’. Oh, yeah. You who write these drug package-inserts, you have no idea. No. Idea.




Neurodiversity: Borromeo Quartet Brings Beethoven’s Op. 130 + Op. 133 Temperament to Life

Borromeo Quartet, photo Steiner

I n but one extraordinary passage, marked ‘beklemmt’, does the first violin break into a kind of anguished recitative whose obstreperous rhythm challenges the solemn gait of the lower instruments and threatens to rupture the music asunder. The emotion is purged, however, and the violin rejoins its companions to murmur once again the theme of the opening. Beethoven left the question of the Quartet’s finale unsettled, so that the work may be performed with either the Große Fuge of the original version or the substitute Rondo movement that he provided for it shortly before his death. This latter movement, a splendid piece of music, was written in the manner of continuous thematic expansion and development that was central to the style of his last years. With its thrusting rhythms and brief returns of its Gypsy-tinged opening theme, the movement has about it a … stubborn unwillingness to be bent into the tonic key of B-flat major.”
  —  Richard Rodda, 2005.
I ts official title is really a misnomer, for the movement incorporates an introduction, a double fugue, a slower and only mildly contrapuntal section brought about with an abrupt modulation from B-flat to G-flat, a scherzo that is soon overwhelmed by a resumption of the fiercest fugal developments, followed by a stream of afterthoughts and retrospects.”
  —  Denis Matthews.
G reat wits are sure to madness near allied—
And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”
  —  John Dryden, 1662.
W ell, if you ask writers and artists who have depression, severe depression or manic depression, what they feel is important to them about their illness and their moods in their work, what they almost always focus upon is the intensity and the range of emotional expressiveness. Learning from the pain and from the suffering, they experience the sorrow, they experience the despair of the nihilism and so forth. And on the other hand, very ecstatic and visionary states. So that’s what artists and writers focus upon. I think it’s a lot more complicated than that. I think it’s also that people with manic depressive illness who have a particular temperament live a life of almost seemingly irreconcilable differences and opposite states that they somehow, on a day to day basis, have to reconcile. So people who have very disciplined and interesting and strong and creative minds, who also have this temperament, spend their lives having to make some order out of chaos and reconcile these opposite states. I think that a lot of what we ask from artists really is to experience extreme mood states, experience the extremes of human nature and experience, and put some new meaning and redemptive value in their work.”
  —  Kay Redfield Jamison, Live from Lincoln Center.
In late 1822, Prince Nikolas Galitzin of Russia commissioned several string quartets from Beethoven. Beethoven was preoccupied with work on the Missa Solemnis, Op. 123; the Diabelli Variations, Op. 120; and the Ninth Symphony, Op. 125, and delayed delivering the B-flat quartet and Große Fugue until 1825. Galitzin was understandably annoyed by the delays. He wasn’t chopped liver.

What’s more, in this third installment on the commission Galitzin got these six movements, including the two strange slow movements and the giant, fierce 16-minute Fuge. The two fugue subjects here are not playing nicey-nicey. They’re rhetorical adversaries, struggling with each other in musical armed conflict, taking no prisoners. There are winners and there’re losers.

The unhappy public reception of Op. 130 with the Fuge attached as-written led to the substitution of the alternate finale to Op. 130, the Rondo, which turned out to be Beethoven’s last finished composition. The deal was, Beethoven would provide the substitute Rondo on condition that the withdrawn Große Fuge would be issued separately, and Beethoven would get an additional fee. Right. The fugue was published posthumously as Op. 133. Why was the final release as Op. 133 delayed until after Beethoven had died? Who was the cause of the delays, and what were their motives? And how many composers today could engage their patrons in this way? The recklessness and extravagance of it are mind-boggling! Crazy!

In December, I did a post on bipolar (manic-depressive) illness and musical creativity. The occasion of last night’s performance by the Borromeo Quartet made me wonder once more about the diversity of varieties of depression that give rise to composers’ output. Several varieties are, I think, manifested in this Beethoven Quartet. Have a look at Larkin’s nice chapter in Cooper’s book on Beethoven for some extended analysis of signs and symptoms in Beethoven’s later life and works.

The Borromeo Quartet outdid themselves in last night’s incarnation of this wonderful, emotional work. The deep perplexity of the human condition was “in there”, in their performance of Op. 130 + Op. 133. The Rondo in place of the amputated Große Fuge? Somehow, it just doesn’t seem right. It’s a shame that Beethoven suffered so that we might have this work. And it’s possible that, back in his time, nothing could’ve been done to treat his condition or mitigate his suffering. But today the question is, ought such symptoms to be under-treated, so that we might have more works like this? Ought such symptoms to be medically induced, as a form of composer performance-enhancement?

P revailing conceptions of creativity in psychology and psychiatry derive from romanticist ideas about the creative imagination—they differ considerably from notions that are central in modernism and postmodernism. Whereas romanticism views creative inspiration as a highly emotional, Dionysian, or primitive state, modernism and postmodernism emphasize processes involving hyper-selfconsciousness and alienation (hyperreflexivity). Although manic-depressive or cyclothymic tendencies seem especially suited to creativity of the romantic sort, schizoid, schizotypal, schizophreniform, and schizophrenic tendencies have more in common with the anti-romantic sensibilities of modernism and postmodernism. I criticize the book by Kay Redfield Jamison, ‘Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament’, for treating romantic concepts of creativity as if they defined creativity in general. I argue that Jamison’s denial or neglect of the creative potential of persons in the schizophrenia spectrum relies on certain diagnostic oversimplifications: an overly broad conception of affective illness and an excessively narrow conception of schizophrenia that ignores the creative potential of the schizophrenia spectrum.”
  —  L Sass, Creativity Research J 2000; 13: 55-74.
T  aking the new antidepressants, some of my patients said they found themselves more ‘confident’ and ‘decisive’. Is this, I wonder, a categorically ‘good’ thing? I used these claims as a jumping-off point for speculation: what if future medications had the potential to modify personality traits in people who had never experienced mood disorder? [Drugs like MK-801, for example.] If doctors were given access to such drugs, how should they prescribe them? The inquiry moved from medical ethics to social criticism: what does our culture demand of us, in the way of assertiveness? What is the price of conformity?”
  —  Peter Kramer, There’s Nothing ‘Deep’ about Depression, 2005.

    Nine Temperament Characteristics
  • Activity level refers to the amount of physical energy in the child. Does the child have to be constantly moving or do they have a relaxing approach?
  • Regularity / Rhythmicity refers to the level of predictability in a child’s biological functions such as waking, becoming tired, feeding.
  • Approach / Withdrawal refers to how the child responds to new people or environments either positive or negative. Does the child check out people or things in their environment without hesitation or do they shy away?
  • Adaptability refers to how long it takes the child to adjust to change. Does the child adjust to the changes in their environment easily or are they resistant to what is happening around them?
  • Intensity refers to the energy level of a positive or negative response. Does the child react intensely to a situation or do they respond in a calm and quiet manner?
  • Mood refers to the child’s general tendency towards a happy or unhappy demeanor.
  • Distractibility refers to the child’s tendency to be sidetracked by other things going on around them. Does the child get easily distracted by what is happening in the environment around them or can they concentrate despite the interruptions?
  • Persistence & Attention Span refers to the child’s ability to stay with a task through frustrations and length of time on the task. Can the child stay with an activity for a long period of time or do they just give up when they become frustrated?
  • Sensitivity refers to how easily a child is disturbed by changes in their environment. Does the child get bothered by external stimuli in their environment such as noises, textures, lights, etc. or do they just seem not to be bothered by them at all?

Kagan & Snidman, Long Shadow of Temperament

 Borromeo Quartet, photo Linder


23 January 2008

The Five and the One: Balance between Voices in Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor

Borromeo Quartet, photo Steiner

A  remarkably accomplished string quartet, not simply for its high technical polish and refined tone, but more importantly for the searching musical insights it brings.”
  —  John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, 23-AUG-2002.
T his piece was a great discovery for me. It helped me to realize that my piano playing style and my personality match well with chamber music. I believe the Franck was my finest performance during the [2001 Van Cliburn] Competition.”
  —  Stanislav Ioudenitch.
Looking forward to the Borromeo Quartet performance this Friday (25-JAN-2008) in Kansas City, I check out their program and revisit scores for the works they will play. One of them will be César Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor, a “big”, atmospheric piece.
  • Nicholas Kitchen, Violin
  • Kristopher Tong, Violin
  • Mai Motobuchi, Viola
  • Yeesun Kim, Cello
  • Stanislav Ioudenitch, Piano (guest)
    Piano Quintet in F Minor
  • I: Molto Moderato Quasi Lento, Allegro 16:00 – 17:00
  • II: Lento, Con Molto Sentimento 10:30 – 12:00
  • III: Allegro Non Troppo, Ma Con Fucco 9:20 – 10:00

T he instrumental work was seen [in the 19th Century] as a wordless oration, and its form was viewed not so much as a harmonic or thematic plan but as an ordered succession of thoughts.”
  —  Mark Bonds, p. 53.
The piano part in this Quintet is virtuosic, magisterial, symphonic. In fact, that may be the biggest risk—the fact that the piano part is so “big”. The quartet may play beautifully and cohesively, but the pianist must fully “belong”. This is a chamber music piece. It ought not to come off as a mini ensemble piano concerto. Nobody is ‘accompaniment’. And it’s not a ‘pianist vs. quartet’ duet.

So the real unifying factor has got to be pianist Ioudenitch. Not ‘in charge’, but genuinely ‘unifying’. The opening Molto Moderato is simultaneously tender, muscular, edgy—moderato but almost anxiously hurried—with minimal good-natured geniality: urgent.

The Borromeos—known for their full tone—deliver phrasings that are abundant with feeling, and their sound production has a characteristic lyrical fullness. But, playing with Iodenitch, they are under-stated, more subdued as they merge their playing. There is a wonderfully hushed quality in this Molto Moderato.

And, true to the ma con fucco indication, the Allegro is brisk, lively and light, well-accented, almost hard-driven. Despite the fact that they do not regularly play together, the Borromeos and Ioudenitch manage to achieve what, to paraphrase David Rounds, is clearly ‘The Five and The One.’

Each movement in the Quintet evolves from a single idea, and these ideas clearly connect as a series of narrative episodes. Like a protagonist in a drama, each idea goes on its ‘journey’ through a series of contrasting psychological states hoping for resolution or fulfillment. Inter-connections and inter-movement references are beautifully rendered by the Borromeos. An extended passage, or even a single texture recalled from an earlier moment triggers our memory and builds up a multi-dimensional awareness. All this makes the work feel “Big”.

Ioudenitch’s interplay with the wonderful Borromeos is marvelous. How hard should the players try to minimize ‘inhomogeneity’ between the strings? In my view, not much. It’s routine to have a novel where each character is fully-developed and yet there are leading roles and supporting roles. And so, too, in a piece like this. It’s unreasonable to insist on absolute parity when the expressive/narrative content of the work doesn’t exhibit parity and when the composer didn’t intend it. The ‘characters’ in the 5 parts here are so disparate as to argue against attempting to enforce ‘equality’.

In other words, this is not the same inter-voice dynamic as in a Piano Trio or Piano Quartet. Obviously, the five voices have to cooperate. But the texture is more complex and could get muddy if they do not really, really cooperate and anticipate each other’s phrasing. There are thematic processes that operate on a larger scale. This is not a ‘subject/answer’ or ‘tell-and-ask’ rhetoric, as Peter Smith and others have explored in Brahms, say (Music Analysis 2001;20:193-236). There’s less predictability in individual voice-leading. There are more inter-voice constraints than in a quartet.

David Rounds, The Four and The One, Table of Contents
And the unfolding of the separate voices/characters is idiosyncratic—characteristic of Franck, even if not necessarily characteristic of the period or the quintet form or sonata form. We have ‘hybrid phrases’ where Franck creates ‘antecedent’ and ‘consequent’ phrases—creates the ‘consequent’ of one (sub-) phrase by transposing an initial tonic-oriented antecedent statement of a thematic idea into the dominant key. This is especially notable when the minor dominant is tonicised. In an alternative approach, Franck adjusts intervals within the repetition (consequent) so that the restatement centers on the dominant but remains within the tonic key. Material that unfolds within the tonespace of the 1-5 fifth is ‘answered’ by a repetition that falls within the 5-1 fourth. This alternative approach ‘recontextualizes’ the idea of an ‘answer’.

In fact, if Franck had used a formal ‘subject/answer’ or ‘tell-and-ask’ type of rhetoric, it would have lent a sort of ‘instability’ to the piece. It would have been somwhat of an anacrusis—an under-stressing or ambiguity of authority, before (and in between) the more forceful statements.

It’s a complex phenomenon and it involves the musical and social coordination of the group, an agreed sense of leadership, and the group members’ individual and collaborative construction of meaning through verbal discussions and shared reflections on the playing. Group identity is shaped by individual players’ self-identities and vice-versa (Rounds 1999; Stubley, 1992) and a piano quintet is no exception. We have both musical and social coordination between musicians here (Davidson & Good, 2002; Ginsborg, Chaffin, & Nicholson, 2006; Williamon & Davidson, 2002; Young & Colman, 1979).

Dahlhaus at Technische Universitat Berlin (1991, p. 255) discussed rhetorical coherence in terms of ‘architectonic form’—a balance between phrases, periods, and sets of periods—each rhetorical unit counterbalanced by one or more other metrical/rhetorical units at every level in the piece. He contrasted this with ‘logical form’ (form based soley on ‘motivic connections’) which holds a movement together ‘from within’. This Franck Quintet seems clearly ‘architectonic’ according to Dahlhaus’ definitions. Big and satisfying!

T his music is rich in atmosphere and tenderness. There are so many colors and such a wide range of emotions, it makes it hard to breathe! When all the proportions are right during the performance, it connects us with the composer’s soul. That’s an unbelievable experience for the performer and the audience.”
  —  Stanislav Ioudenitch.

Franck Piano Quintet, Molto Moderato, Piano part
Franck Piano Quintet, Molto Moderato, Violin 1 part
Franck Piano Quintet, Molto Moderato, Violin 2 part
Franck Piano Quintet, Molto Moderato, Viola part
Franck Piano Quintet, Molto Moderato, ‘Cello part


    [40-sec clip, César Franck, Piano Quintet, Molto Moderato, mm. 1-10, Schubert Ensemble, 1.1MB MP3]

    [50-sec clip, César Franck, Piano Quintet, Molto Moderato, “A”, Schubert Ensemble, 1.6MB MP3]

    [30-sec clip, César Franck, Piano Quintet, Molto Moderato, “B”, Schubert Ensemble, 0.9MB MP3]

    [50-sec clip, César Franck, Piano Quintet, Molto Moderato, “C”, Schubert Ensemble, 1.3MB MP3]


 Borromeo Quartet, photo Linder