24 June 2009

Adina Spire: Music of Universal Devotion, Protest, Ecstasy

 Adina Spire

D    ark brightness’... the music of a contemporary Romanian gypsy girl... Born in Romania in 1977, Adina Spire is a classical composer of sacred music for Catholic and Orthodox liturgies. An attempt to put any interpretation on her music has to make references to the mysterious Romanian old culture and the context of recent history... The context of Adina Spire’s compositions is the 1989 the revolution of Romania against the totalitarian government and the suffering of the people during the subsequent civil war—including the Adina’s own suffering as a little girl, suddenly orphaned and displaced to the orphanage associated with a monastery near Arad. Her music dwells on a complex of interrelated themes: grief, fear, solitude, vigil, memory, nostalgia, innocence, sensuality, intolerance, protest, violence—each piece approaching this view from a different angle, insistent upon perfecting a coded way of talking about something either unmentionable or impossible to express... This is ‘rebel’ music—the protest of the soul against soullessness, of the poor and defenseless against unfeeling poverty and aggression and intolerance.”
  —  Institutul Cultural Român, 2009.
A dina Spire’s music is brilliant—evocative, lyrical, and incisive. Intensely political. It is also ‘doctrinal’—expressing doctrines of the once-and-future displaced, disenfranchised, and disabused... each note now aspiring to live.

    [50-sec clip, Adina Spire, ‘Kontakion’, 1.6MB MP3]

M any of Adina’s compositions are calibrated by Romanian tradition and informed by Orthodox liturgy or explore notions of religious practice and the Divine. But her vision is delocalized from her native Romania and draws upon materials that are pan-European and span a period from Medieval times up to the present.

T he very old ‘borrowed’ elements and the instantaneous ‘ambient’ elements mingle and give rise to a fantastical sort of ‘bricolage’ that calls into question the very concepts of time and civilization. In a manner similar to Jorge Luis Borges stories, Adina’s compositions can make you wonder whether human history—any of it—is to be trusted. This disorienting effect can be both beautiful and moving.

A dina Spire is a teacher at the conservatory in Arad, Arader Musik Conservatorium. She is also an accomplished conductor and cellist.

T he example MP3 clip above is representative of her modus operandi—generating new expressions from materials that are simultaneously familiar and exotic, archaic and radically new: her compositions are, like Kontakion, invariably novel and surprising. The execution is passionate, with deeply-felt flourishes. Adina’s music suggests Renaissance or Baroque performance practices of elaborating from the written music, and it is hard to know where Adina’s score leaves off and the performers’ ‘improvvisaziones’ begin.

A    dina Spire’s ... harmonic and dynamic designs reflect a paradoxical vision of intense feeling behind a frozen and fearful facade. Thus, tempos are mostly so slow as to give the impression of motionlessness, an effect sustained, even when short note-values are in play, by the use of small and very simple progressions, tense pedal-points, and agonized suspensions.... In parallel to orthodox modulation, the composer cuts abruptly between keys or slowly dissolves one chord into another by accumulating their pitches into blurred clusters. Since the tonic at any given point in Adina Spire’s score is a disputed issue (often brusquely dictated by the orchestra, often completely absent), these arpeggio-clusters—which have their precedents in the cinematographic soundtrack genre of terror movies—also amount to significant polytonal ambiguities in themselves... At the level of general design, Adina Spire works repeatedly with extreme contrasts between moments of tonal delicacy and cataclysmic avalanches of atonal sound... Spire’s three-dimensional orchestration scores and interpretations are intrinsic to these gradual transitions, tone-colour in what amounts to a quasi-cinematographic conception of timbre as light and sound positioning as ‘viewpoint’.”
  —  Institutul Cultural Român, 2009.
I n the case of this example, ‘Kontakion’ (Greek: κοντάκιον) is a kind of hymn that has for many centuries been performed in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Greek word is ‘kontax’ (κόνταξ), a ‘pole’—specifically the pole around which a sacred scroll text is coiled. The term describes the way in which the words on a scroll unfurl as the scroll is read in worship. The word ‘kontakion’ originally referred to a Byzantine poetic form, whose origins date back as far as the 6th century CE or probably earlier. Based in Syriac hymnographical traditions that underwent mutations in Greek-speaking Byzantium, it’s really a “sermon in verse accompanied by music”. The meter and music accentuate the rhetorical beauty of the speaker’s meditation.

A  Kontakion is fundamentally a ‘funerary’ form—usually comprised of 18 to 24 metrically identical stanzas called oikoi (“houses”), each preceded by a short prelude (in a different meter), called a koukoulion (“cowl”). If the ‘cowl’ is, say, in a duple meter, then the ‘house’ may be in triple meter. The first letters of each of the stanzas form an acrostic, which frequently includes the name of the poet... not unlike, say, J.S. Bach and his fascination with numerology and acrostics (e.g., incipits that spell out B-A-C-H). The last line of a Kontakion prelude introduces a refrain, which is repeated at the end of all the stanzas. The stanzas are not unlike Baroque chaconne or passacaglia or ‘folia’ forms, with their dozens of variations that obsess upon a theme until the point of ecstasy or emotional transcendence.

T his Kontakion by Adina Spire has reverential yet aggressive aspects to it. It is contemplative, brooding—as is fitting for a ‘Hymn for the Dead’ or requiem. But it’s also punctuated with explosive electroacoustic effects. Listen carefully. Are some of these recorded segments played backwards, reversed tracks? Maybe so. What we have is a delirious mix of ambient-aleatoric material with Baroque variations. (I pull my copy of Robin Stowell’s book from the shelf, look at p. 140.)

I n the midst of the ambient-aleatoric edifice that’s going up, we hear... the cello playing a version of ... ‘La Folia’? The ‘La Folia’ meter is either in 1 [4+2] or 3, depending on what era you're speaking of and depending on whether the ‘La Folia’ performance was a vernacular music of common people or was instead a co-opted, stately dance of the aristocracy. Its chord progression is the ubiquitous/eternal i-V-i-VII / III-VII-[i or VI]-V / i-V-i-VII / III-VII-[i or VI7]-IV[4-3sus]-i.

R encontre entre la tradition de la basse obstinée du 17e siècle et le jazz, sur fond d’improvisation et de plaisir pur?

F olia’ is pronounced “foh-LEE-ah,” conventionally thought to mean ‘crazy’ or ‘empty-headed’ or ‘revelrous’. But is this correct? Well, no, not really. It seems to have been uncritically repeated in the musicology literature, by non-Iberians who neither know Portuguese nor have any deep understanding of the politics of 16th-Century Iberians who likely were the originators of ‘La Folia’.

I t’s a sort of hemipedalian waltz that carries the feeling of lament with a slow, percussion-marked processional feeling—not a jolly dance, really; more like a reckless PTSD dance of refugees and casualties from a war—like Adina. Yes, the ‘folia’ was a musical framework used during the Baroque period for songs, dances and sets of variations. But the early versions embody, I think, a valedictory spirit ... of the Portuguese who were busy fighting and eventually defeating the Moors? It is an aesthetic that acknowledges the real possibility of premature, sudden death—the unpredictability of troubled times. It is ‘mannerist’ and ‘historical materialist’ in outlook.

I n other words, ‘La Folia’ bears the same aesthetic ‘marks’ as the epic and autumnal ‘Tarantella’—furious, ecstatic dancing in defiance of fate and death. Its rollicking is not orgiastic but reckless in its psychological regressiveness. I could die tomorrow, as could you... as did he.

I n 1611, Sebastiàn de Covarrubias (Tesoro de la lengua castellana) described the folia as a Portuguese dance, very noisy, performed with tambourines and other instruments by disguised street-porters carrying young men dressed in women’s clothing on their shoulder. He said nothing about moroseness... it is a defiantly celebratory requiem dance. Have a look at the books by Hauser and Maniates.

T he musical design of a 16th or an early 17th-century folia consists of an upper melodic framework (although the precise melody varies) and a lower staff that yields a simple continuo accompaniment. The opening two beats of anacrusis are sometimes omitted, but in any case the first accent always falls on the V chord. The stroke pattern continually emphasizes 3/4 meter, but both the melody and the harmonic changes often oscillate between 3/2 and 6/4—as seems to be the case in Adina Spire’s ‘Kontakion’.

T hen in the 1670s the ‘folia’ was co-opted by the aristocracy and was mutated into a slow and stately dance, akin to a sarabande. All second beats still were dotted... the prominent secondary ‘folia’-type accent.

W hat is so special about this tune? Why has it been borrowed so extensively, by many western composers over the past 500 years?
  1. Does its appeal derive from its satisfying human beings’ love of rhythmic ‘balance’ and harmonic ‘parity’ among multiple parts? The fact that ‘folia’ form has a high degree of symmetry and equitable harmonic layering suggests that this might be so.
  2. Does ‘folia’ embody some hard-wired pattern that our brains have evolved to prefer? It even sounds familiar when you have never heard the piece before.
  3. Is its perennial popularity a consequence of a peculiarly wide latitude that the ‘folia’ chord progression affords for textural adaptation and variations? La Folia form provides lots of freedom because there are no fixed numbers of variations to complete nor has there to be any structure between the variations. Vamp away!
  4. Is ‘folia’ popularity driven by politics? Consider the social phenomenon that the ‘folia’ had its roots in popular ‘rebel’ culture and developed into a stately court dance but, more than this, a vehicle for courtly flirtation. Consider, too, that in some cultures it was a funerary piece or requiem but in other cultures was primarily a fertility dance for the people. The ambiguities enable all sorts of interpretations, all sorts of transgressions.
  5. Is ‘folia’ popularity a Richard Dawkins-like ‘selfish gene’, popularity that begets more popularity and repetition/borrowing? A tune that we grow up with, and that each composer grows up with—strongly associated with culture and personal memories—and this is what invites yet more borrowing?
T he performer needs to be aware of the transformations of the basic four-note subject. Not only does the subject repeat almost relentlessly, but it’s restated and transformed in successive variations, in sixteenth and eighth notes. These segments divide the music into discrete sentences/statements. This approach generates ‘micro-pieces’ played one after the other. Kaleidoscopic!

L ike a chaconne or passacaglia or romanesca, the ‘folia’ form involves a short subject (usually four measures) that’s relentlessly repeated and varied... Symmetric thematic transformations of transposition, inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion. These are normally supplemented with diminution, augmentation, interpolation, fragmentation, octave displacements, and elision operations. The relentlessness of it is, I think, what lends the funereal aspect to what is otherwise (or can be) a pretty vigorous dance.

W hat we have here amounts to a kind of ‘multiple-encryption’. From the elements of a supposedly Orthodox liturgy, Adina Spire’s incorporation of symbolic components of secular origin enables her to protest recent political events and cultural trends. Conversely, from the notation of a supposedly ‘secular’ music Bach and other Renaissance and Baroque composers who ‘borrowed’ ‘La Folia’ encrypted texts of the Latin liturgy, we get [Bach's] customary incorporation of symbolically numbers of biblical origin that were significant in [Lutheran] doctrine (for example, Bach's multiform signatures, B-A-C-H, etc.). Hidden chorale citations embedded in the developing variations.

B    ach used antithesis, conceit and paradox to ‘instruct and familiarize the reader with basic concepts of faith in highly condensed form’. Also called paradoxa, a typical epigram included juxtapositions of passages such as ‘God wills that all men should be saved’ with ‘Few are chosen’ (1 Timothy 2:4 and Matthew 22:14)... With enigmatical notations such as ‘mi contra fa, concordia discors’, ‘cross/crown’, and ‘beginning/ending’, Bach associates his canons with a peculiarly Lutheran dialectic in which antithesis (what Augustine called ‘antinomy’) is a symbol for the cross of Christ.”
  —  Eric Chafe, Symbolum, p. 14.
D id ‘La Folia’ arise out of the valedictory spirit in Portugal, during and after the conflicts with the Moors in 1500s? Is this music a product of the same milieu that prompted Camões to write the epic ‘Os Lusíadas’? I find tidbits of evidence, for and against. I am unsatisfied with the facile accounts given and repeated uncritically in the musicology literature [which trivialize the history of ‘La Folia’ as ‘mad revelry’... as either a peasant dance or courtly dance], but I have not found (yet) anything definitive to support my conjecture of more serious origins of the tune--involving, say, political/aesthetic correspondences between ‘Os Lusíadas’ and ‘La Folia’.

 Camões, Os Lusíadas
T his beautiful ambient, aleatoric ‘Kontakion’ is wholly compatible with the epic, ecstatic, improvisatory, protestful, funerary idiom of ‘La Folia’. Adina’s decision to incorporate it here is, I think, brilliant.

T he compass of Adina Spire’s music cannot be adequately grasped in one reading. I have ‘read’ it and admire it and am excited about it to want to write about it here. I recognize that I have only so far scratched its surface, but I hope the ideas above may excite you to explore her work. Adina’s music is playful. It manages to be intensely political without being angry. Expect to read it with an attitude that questions the status quo—or even, say, the notion of ‘reverence.’ Discover ‘sacred’ music that respects reverential postures but asks you to critically reevaluate your reverential stance and the moral implication that reverence has for us as individuals and as societies. Very cool.

Therapeutic Tarantella: Bruegel the Elder, ‘Epileptic Women’
T    o prepare for [a friend’s funeral] service, I had been practicing the Chaconne every day — fussing over individual phrases, searching for better ways to string them together, and wondering about the very nature of the piece, at its core an old dance form that had been around for centuries. After the many times I had heard and played the Chaconne, I had hoped it would fall relatively easily into place by now, but it appeared to be taunting me. The more I worked, the more I saw; the more I saw, the further away it drifted from my grasp. Perhaps that is in the nature of every masterpiece. But more than that, the Chaconne seemed to exude shadows over its grandeur and artful design. Exactly what was hidden there I could not say, but I would lose myself for long stretches of time exploring the work’s repeating four-bar phrases, which rose and fell and marched solemnly forward in ever-changing patterns.”
  —  Arnold Steinhardt, Violin Dreams.

20 June 2009

Pre-verbal Music: Duo Stump-Linshalm’s Recording of Pierluigi Billone's 1+1=1

 Duo Stump-Linshalm

I    s it possible to approach music in silent [wordless] comprehension, without falling prey to human psychological, intuitive, irrational, spontaneous influences—i.e., those forms of comprehension engendered by words, text, speaking?”
  —  Pierluigi Billone.
P ierluigi Billone’s aleatoric work reminds me a little of Peter Eötvös’s and Ensemble Modern’s performance of Helmut Lachenmann’s ‘Schwankungen am Rand’ [Fluctuations at the edge]. Pierluigi had in fact spent some time studying with Helmut some years ago...

A    final angst-ridden attempt to strike water out of the stone of the dead monument known as [modernist] ‘music’.”
  —  Helmut Lachenmann, commenting on the aims of new music.
P lumbing the outer-limits of timbral space with each instrument. Sudden, explosive dynamics changes. Overblowing, harmonic-clipping and distortion of bass-clarinet reeds... wonderful, naturalistic colors. The harmonic palette is maybe a little like the songs of whales singing to each other, whales’ courting rituals...

T    he title of the work, ‘1+1=1’, is a quotation from an Andrey Tarkovskij film which points to the special relation between the two instruments [achieving a transcendent union by their playing together]... One drop plus another drop makes one larger drop, not two.”
  —  Petra Stump & Heinz-Peter Linshalm.
I t is impossible to know whether it is a ‘proper’ language with subjects, predicates, etc. But it has harmonic and lyrical and rhythmic features that (a) invite interest, (b) reward whatever interest and patience are sent its way, and (c) propel the interested listener to various kinds of meditation.

 Petra Stump, photo (c) Petra Stump
T    he variations that become part of instrumental technique through each individual discovery are traces—some clearer than others—of the human and cultural experiences that produced them and led to them. And they ‘vibrate’ in the act of listening—as particularity, identity, origin. They are sonic ‘layers’—living matter, with an intelligence of its own...”
  —  Pierluigi Billone.
L ooking at some of his scores, I wonder whether Billone is striving to be an archtypically ‘difficult’ composer. But electroacoustic digital material or specially-designed analog instruments or ‘found’ instruments, including rumbling and crumpling metal, play no role in this 70-minute composition. And the graphical/aleatoric score annotations are reasonably straight-forward, compared, say, to Stockhausen or Xenakis.

S onic materials and structure. Think like a whale and use what’s at hand. Reed, glottis, keys smacking against clarinet-body tone-holes, lungs. From time to time, things grind to a halt while Petra Stump and Heinz-Peter Linshalm slowly and punctuatedly smash hell out of their two bass clarinets’ keys). Alternately, there are moments where subtle, whispered tones only hint at the note that would sound were more air flowing past the expectant reed. Intertwining of pitch-bent/quarter-tone and microtonal passages by Stump and Linshalm are beautiful and wonderfully discursive, on account of the excellent recording and engineering of this disc. The beat-frequencies from the microtonal interferences between the two parts add extra depth to the music—a feature that’s accentuated by the spatial specifications that Billone designed for the piece to be performed.

T he two performers are positioned as far apart as possible (about 15 meters) while still permitting mutual acoustic influence and line-of-sight gesture. Each soul is spatially isolated... The interior of the studio is then “like the interior of a big instrument,” says Billone. No synthesizers or exotic digital sound-processing software were used in the recording/engineering of this CD. So, except for the technically and aesthetically excellent miking and mixing by Alfred Reiter at Klangforum Wien, it is almost an anti-technological work. Marine mammal-esque.

T    he flow of energy and merging of performer and instrument... One finds archaic [pre-historical, paleological] images taking form. It seems as if they were musical incantations intended to counteract the commodifiability of which the world of ‘administrated listening’ rests.”
  —  CD liner notes, ‘1+1=1’.
B esides Pierluigi Billone and the ‘1+1=1’ piece, other composers including Beat Furrer, Bernhard Gander, Bernhard Gal, Erin Gee, Christoph Herndler, Jorge Sánchez-Chiong, and Judit Varga have dedicated pieces to Stump and Linshalm. The diversity of Petra’s and Heinz-Peter’s playing and repertoire is really remarkable.

 Heinz-Peter & Petra, photo (c) Jean-François Charles
Duo Stump-Linshalm’s upcoming performances are listed here.

P etra and Heinz-Peter reside (as is poetically fitting considering the rocky etymology of their given names) in Berg 31, Götzis, Austria—in the beautiful Alps foothills south of the Bodensee, between Zurich and Innsbruck. The photo gallery on their website shows images from a number of mountainous places they have trekked. Pierluigi is currently Gastdozent für Komposition at the Musikhochschule Frankfurt, having just completed a guest professorship in Graz. (Envious, I think I would like to adjust some life-priorities to be more like Pierluigi’s or like Petra’s and Heinz-Peter’s?)

    [50-sec clip, Duo Stump-Linshalm, Pierluigi Billone, ‘1+1=1’, track2, 1.6MB MP3]

    [50-sec clip, Duo Stump-Linshalm, Pierluigi Billone, ‘1+1=1’, track8, 1.6MB MP3]

T    hey [Petra and Heinz-Peter] elicit the most unusual sounds from their instruments. These range from ethereal arabesques to enraged shrieking...”
  —  Ursula Strubinsky.
 Pierluigi Billone

14 June 2009

Trio Hantaï and Marin Marais: Intimate Character Pieces and Politics of Melancholy

 Trio Hantaï

M    arais’s third book of ‘Pièces de Viole’ (the source of this afternoon’s work) came out in 1711 [when Marais was 55 years old], two years after he withdrew from his operatic career after the failure of his fourth opera, ‘Sémélé’. The suite in C minor from this book begins with a deeply tragic Prélude, which is followed by a vigorous Fantaisie with a brilliant and virtuosic variation or double.”
  —  Robert Mealy, Program Notes, BEMF, 2009.
T    he suites [of Marais] are more loosely organized than those by Couperin. The policy of mixing the ‘difficult’ with the ‘easy’ is discreetly expressed by Marais in his ‘Avertissement’ to Pieces de Viol (I): ‘And because simple melodies meet the tast of a lot of people, I have composed some pieces with this in mind, where chords scarcely enter. One will find others where I have used them more, and several which are entirely filled with them for those who love harmony...’ Marais differs markedly from Couperin in that he made little conscious effort to achieve anything resembling goûts réunis [conforming to prevailing/popular taste]. This is not surprising, since the music itself is so wedded to the [viol] and so bound to the tradition of virtuoso solo performance... Some of Marais’s expressive and quasi-improvisatory preludes, especially those from Book (2), seem indebted to the lute repertory in particular. The same ornaments, the same melodic turns and the same rhythms are found.”
  —  James Anthony, French Baroque Music, p. 389.
T  he Trio Hantaï performance at BEMF yesterday was especially intimate—exerting a wide range of forces on our emotions. The Jordan Hall (New England Conservatory) venue was a bit large for the trio. But, on the other hand, the acoustics of the large hall only served to accentuate the intimacy of the Trio’s playing. It felt as though they were playing in a private home, so great was the person-to-person, player-to-audience expressiveness of each of the three Hantaï brothers.

T  he Marin Marais piece especially captured my imagination—the profound sadness of it. A number of us in the audience had damp eyes—signaling an affective resonance with what we were hearing. We thought of the trials that Marais had been experiencing 300 years ago—not about three Hantai ‘talking-heads’ discoursing about Marais, but instead projecting ourselves into Marais’s actual historical, political situation.We remained intensely ‘present’, not displaced to the margins of what was represented by the Hantaïs’ playing. The signs of this affective state—these tears—were real tears of mourning, just like the ones we cry for, say, Anna Karenina, or other fictive characters.

A    n affect is never a purely psychological thing, nor a purely somatic one.”
  —  Joyce McDougall, The Many Faces of Eros, p. 157.
I  n other words, it was French Baroque stage recreated in Boston, complete with ceremonies where our passions were called into being—by the sacrifices exacted by a world that doesn’t exist anymore. Marais evoked our own [post-modern] subjectivity, from the distance of the 17th/early-18th Century. In short, I loved it.

A  t age 20, Marin Marais married Catherine d’Amicourt (on 21-SEP-1676), and they had 19 children together [?!]. He studied composition with Jean-Baptiste Lully and bass viol/da gamba with Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe. Subsequently, he wrote his five remarkable books of ‘Pièces de viole’ (1686-1725), a life’s work that covers the gamut of court preferences and personal emotions. But not a great amount of historical detail or correspondence or other evidence has been preserved, through which we might know very much about Marais’s life. The Milliot – de la Gorce biography from about 20 years ago is good so far as it goes, but it is frustrating in that it is unable to go as far as one might wish. For example, were these ‘Pièces en ut mineur’ (Prélude — Fantaisie — Allemande — Sarabande grave — Gigue — Rondeau) a personal statement or instead an oblique commentary on political developments in France in about 1711?

D    uring the so-called ‘Age of Melancholy’, many writers invoked both traditional and new conceptualizations of the disease in order to account for various types of social turbulence, ranging from discontent and factionalism to civil war. Writing about melancholy became a way to explore both the causes and preventions of political disorder, on both specific and abstract levels. Thus, at one and the same moment, a writer could write about melancholy to discuss specific and ongoing political crises and to explore more generally the principles which generate political conflicts in the first place.”
  —  Adam Kitzes, Politics of Melancholy.
T  he other music by Leclair, Rameau, Couperin, and J. S. Bach was excellent, too; I don’t mean to diminish it by commenting only on the Marais. The wit, imagination, and virtuosity of the Hantaïs’ playing were superb throughout. Jérôme, still bowing to the audience’s applause, rises and sees that Pierre and Marc have already left the stage a few seconds earlier. He shrugs to the audience, gives a comical “Well, you two are at liberty to exit, then” gesture, dangling his viol out toward the gaping stage door through which they had passed. He smiles and good-naturedly exits himself. The Hantaï brothers are masters of absolutely every Baroque gesture that exists, and not only the musical gestures!

  • Pierre Hantaï, harpsichord
  • Jérôme Hantaï, viola da gamba
  • Marc Hantaï, Baroque flute

13 June 2009

BEMF Organ Mini-Festival: Baroque Lutheran Rhetoric Revealed

 First Lutheran Church, Boston

B    egin with simple ingredients, such as a melody limited only to three notes, then four, then five, etc. Exploit a certain interval—for example, the major second or the tritone. Improvise a short motive—for example, B-A-C-H (B-flat, A, C, B-natural)—and transpose it, invert it, augment it, condense it, expand it. Improvise melodies within the compass of the octave. Imitate various instruments or voices and styles. Use all keys, modes, and meters. You can do this!”
  —  Jan Overduin, Improvisation for Organists, p. 7.
T  he BEMF organ mini-festival included segments yesterday offered by Joan Lippincott on Bach’s ‘Art of the Fugue’, by Bálint Karosi and Chris Brown on ‘Rhetorical Forms in Lutheran Worship’ illustrated by works of Böhm, Buxtehude, and Bach, and by William Porter on comparing the fantasias, fugues, and sonatas of J.S. Bach and C.P.E. Bach.

 Joan Lippincott
J  oan Lippincott is Professor Emerita of Organ at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, Princeton. She trained with Alexander McCurdy at Curtis Institute and for some years was principal organist at Princeton University. Her activities concertizing and recording currently occupy her full-time.

 Bálint Karosi
B  álint Karosi is presently Minister of Music and principal organist at First Lutheran in Boston. He was born 1979 in Budapest, Hungary, and began playing piano and clarinet at age 6 and at 16 he began to study the pipe organ. In the 1990s, he studied at the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music with Gábor Lehotka. Subsequently, he was at the Conservatoire Superieure de Musique de Geneva with Lionel Rogg from 1999-2001, where he was awarded the ‘Prix de virtousité avec distinction’ in both organ and clarinet. He has two Masters degrees from Oberlin, studying with James David Christie. He was the winner of the 2008 J. S. Bach international organ competition in Leipzig, Germany. His honors also include an award for best modern improvisation at the organ competition in Brno, second prize at Prague’s Spring International Clarinet Competition, first prize and the audience prize at the Dublin International Organ Competition, first prize at the Arthur Positer Organ Competition in Syracuse and second prize at the St. Maurice International Organ Competition in Switzerland.

T  he beautiful Kellner-tempered Richards, Fowkes ‘Opus 10’ (delivered to FLC in December 2000) is a joy to hear. The 70 mmH2O (0.1 psia) wind-pressure has plenty of power and CFM flow-capacity to fill the tall, austere, brick-and-oak, barrel-ceilinged Lutheran sanctuary. The Posaune 16' and Sub-bass 16' ranks give impressive sounds that can be put to a variety of innovative, coloristic religious and secular purposes. The low end is also aided by Bourdon 16', Dulcian 16' and Krummhorn 8' on this instrument.

T  he First Lutheran congregation in Boston was founded in 1839 as the German Lutheran Society and is the oldest Lutheran congregation in New England. The church, at Marlborough and Berkeley streets in historic Back Bay, was designed in 1957 by MIT Dean of Architecture, Pietro Belluschi. In 1995, Professor William Porter and church organist, Mark Meyer, initiated the process commissioning this new Kellner-tempered Richards, Fowkes instrument.

T  he BEMF organ mini-festival afforded an excellent chance to consider Brad Lehman’s ideas about Bach’s temperament—especially in the Bach Contrapuncti in D minor and other works in flat keys.

A    ll those major and minor keys sound objectively different from one another, having slightly different semitone and tone arrangements in their scales, and different harmonic balances of the triads and more complex chords. These differences render all the keys recognizably distinct, as to the tensions and resolutions in the way tonal music behaves. The triads and diatonic scales of F and C majors are the closest to regular 1/6-comma temperament. D major and E-flat major each have an average quality resembling equal temperament. The scale of E major is the closest to Pythagorean tuning. We have the complete flexibility of modulation as if it were equal temperament, but also a third dimension of depth: natural motion forward through the music, in a well-organized and dramatic manner. … Short of hearing this directly for oneself at a keyboard instrument, how may we describe the most noticeable musical effects of the temperament? Sharps are high and bright, with a strong and rather ‘hard’ (dur-) tone that creates ‘forward motion’ when they are used in dominant triads. Flats seem warm and vibrant, ‘soft’ (moll-) and gentle, with a shimmer to their chords and scales. The naturals, with the exception of B, have the same neutral and resonant character that they do in a complete 1/6 comma layout. The biggest difference here, as compared with other familiar ‘well-temperaments’ like Kellner’s, is the treatment of the flats. With the sharps placed so uncommonly high, the major and minor 3rds are especially euphonious when those same levers are played on the keyboard as flats. They serve very well as the tonic under natural notes, making major 3rds (for example, D-flat under F, or A-flat under C).”
  —  Brad Lehman, Univ Michigan.
T  he performances also afforded a special opportunity to hear the rhythmic control and clarity that are possible with the excellent tracker mechanism design by Richards, Fowkes Organ Company. A tracker organ is one where the key action physically connects the keys and the windchests through a series of rods called ‘trackers’. When the organist presses a key, the corresponding tracker moves, and wind enters the pipe corresponding to the key pressed. (This is contrasted with a ‘mechanical stop’ action, where each stop control is physically connected to a rank of pipes. When the organist activates the stop control, the action allows wind to flow into the selected rank of pipes. This control is usually a stop-knob, which the organist activates by pulling towards himself/herself.) The tracker mechanism usually entails somewhat greater finger effort in playing but achieves a more direct keyboard ‘feel’ and a more responsive control of the pipes’ valves, a big plus for fast, virtuosic passages.

C    P. E. labeled the final page of Bach’s manuscript with the message that Bach died while introducing B-A-C-H as a countersubject in the third part of the fugue. Ignoring for the moment that B-A-C-H is here a subject, not a countersubject, the whole story [that this Contrapunctus was composed by Bach on his deathbed, pen falling from his hand in the midst of measure 239] is apocryphal [false]. The piece was further labeled ‘Fuga a 3 Soggetti’ (Fugue with 3 Subjects) in the 1751 published edition, despite that fact that it was patently Bach’s intention that it be a quadruple (four-subject) fugue. But how can we be sure of that?”
  —  Jeffrey Hall, FlagMusic.com.
T  he incompleteness of ‘Die Kunst der Fuge’, BWV 1080, will probably always remain controversial. Bach probably started writing it sometime in the 1740s or maybe earlier. The first known surviving version, which contained 12 fugues and 2 canons, bears Bach’s copy date of 1745. Bach’s second version was published in 1751 after his death. That one contains 14 fugues and 4 canons. Göncz about 12 years ago investigated the combinatorics of the construction of Contrapunctus XIV (see link below), coming up with new ideas that, to me, are really persuasive.

 Permutation matrix, Contrapunctus XIV
T  he sudden ending of Contrapunctus XIV in mid-sentence, in bar 239, was beautifully and dramatically rendered by Joan Lippincott, to the delight of the festival attendees. In summary, yesterday provided an emotionally moving and very illuminating session—one that I hope leads to follow-on organ mini-festival offerings in future years’ BEMF programs.

 Contrapunctus XIV, unfinished

Denn gleich wei di Rosen stehenAs fair roses are bounded
unter spitzen Dornen gar,By sharp thorns on every side,
also auch die Christen gehenSo with perils sore surrounded
in viel Angsten und Gefahr...Christians in this world abide...
Ob mire schon die Augen brechen,Though my eyes should dim, and hearing
das Gehor auch gar verschwind't;Fail in silence quite away;
meine Zung nicht mehr kan sprechen,Though my tongue should cease from speaking,
bist du doch mein Licht, mein Wort.You are still my Light and Word.

  —  Old-School Lutheran rhetoric (‘Freu dich sehr, O meine Seele’)

J    osephus – I come to you, venerable master, in order to be introduced to the rules and principles of music.
Aloysius – You want, then, to learn the art of composition?
Josephus – Yes.
Aloysius – But are you not aware that this study is like an immense ocean, not to be exhausted even in the lifetime of a Nestor?”
  —  Johann Joseph Fux, Gradus ad Parnassum, 1725.

12 June 2009

William Porter on Musicological Truth, Speculation, and Web 2.0

 Jean Raoux, Orpheus & Eurydice, ca. 1718, Getty Museum

S    ome time ago, I was giving a harpsichord lesson and the student was playing this piece by Johann Casar Ferdinand Fischer—‘Uranie’. And in the Passacaglia an idea occurred to me: I noticed a similarity between the development in Fischer’s music and the plot in the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. The Passacaglia begins in D minor… the accented tritone in measure #3 already indicates danger. Then the descent—descending and descending in D minor: Orpheus is descending into Hades to save [the snake-bitten] Eurydice. Then we have the relative major, F, the sweetest key in this historical temperament, and these trills: Orpheus is overjoyed to find Eurydice, and he begins his return, rescuing her. After the ascent, we have A minor. Orpheus looks at Eurydice, violating the stipulation that had been set in Hades—and the texture of the music thins out, and the furies begin tearing her from him, tearing her limb from limb, and she vanishes…

I said this to my harpsichord student—told my student that this Passacaglia seemed to me to have structural similarities to the plot of Orpheus & Eurydice… and nothing more about it than this. To my knowledge, nobody had ever before considered that Fischer might have been inspired by the Orpheus legend when he composed this piece.

Months after that harpsichord lesson, I Googled ‘Fischer, Passacaglia, Uranie, Orpheus’ to see whether anybody else had had this idea, and to my surprise there was an entry on Wikipedia that said ‘Some experts think that the final dance of the Uranie suite tells the story of Orpheus & Euridice’—but it did not have any footnotes to name who the experts were. Then, some months after that, I Googled it again, and the entry had changed, saying now that ‘William Porter, professor of music at Yale [sic], thinks that this Passacaglia was inspired by the story of Orpheus’. More recently, the entry has been changed yet again, to remove any reference to me.

The moral of this story is that today we can casually invent our own truth. Truth is regarded in a [casual, relative] way. What begins as honest, original speculation gets quickly repeated on the Web, usually stated as fact and usually without attribution.

I like it better when the tentativeness of [my original] conjecture is restored—it ‘might’ be this way; Fischer ‘might’ have been inspired by the Orpheus & Eurydice legend. Speculation and conjecture allow each person to consider an idea and its possibility themselves, and that is far more interesting and beautiful than a [cold, hard] fact.”
  —  William Porter, pre-performance remarks to audience at BEMF keyboard mini-festival, 11-JUN-2009.
F  irst, it is necessary to hold tenure at a prestigious university school of music or conservatory. Second, the person putting forward a musicological opinion should have published extensively in refereed academic journals and be widely regarded as an expert in the field to which the opinion pertains—publishing well-regarded books on the subject, even better. Third, the opiner should cite all previous work by others and present the opinion in a scholarly manner in an appropriate medium or at a worthy venue—certainly not in Wikipedia, which is the quintessential purveyor du jour of all that is unreliable. Fourth, he/she should present exhaustive evidence, detailing each argument that supports the idea and fairly entertaining all rejoinders that are conceivable, summarizing the strengths and limitations of each. Fifth, it is necessary to expressly identify the remarks as opinion only, and to indicate that it should be regarded as tentative, based as it is on conjecture and modest evidence—so that tender babes reading things on the Web will not be deceived or misled.

O r, instead, we can responsibly have fun. And accept that there are valid use-cases besides serious academic ones, and accept that some of those valid use-cases will be fictive and creative ones. Or trust that anyone interested enough to consider some wild, colorful conjecture will be vigorous enough to do their own thinking and fact-checking independently.

 William Porter
W illiam Porter, professor of harpsichord and organ at Eastman School of Music, gave a wonderful performance in yesterday’s BEMF ‘keyboard mini-festival’. He prefaced his performance of Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer’s ‘Musicalischer Parnassus—Uranie’ with the humorous story in the blockquote above, about his speculation about similarities between the plot of Orpheus and Uridice and the dramatic arc in Fischer’s Passacaglia in D minor.

I f you’ve read any of my posts here on CMT blog over the past three years, you know that I’m partial to a kind of truth that is like the kind preferred by Michel Foucault—an evolving, exploring kind of truth; one that we ‘inscribe’ and that ‘inscribes’ us. I respect expertise and evidence, but I don’t especially like regimes and power structures that restrict access to expertise and that legislate/adjudicate what evidence shall be admissible. I like knowing things, but I don’t especially like knowledge that needlessly suppresses imagination, play, creativity, art or fiction.

W e might surmise from his pre-performance remarks that William Porter prefers a pluralistic style of truth, and that he prefers this on aesthetic grounds. Is the position that Porter maintains closest to the one that Michael Lynch has written about? You don’t have to insist that there is one and only one true story of the world. And if you reject the unitary position, you don’t have to resign yourself to having no objective truth, every relativist’s view as good as any other's view. Lynch’s brand of pluralism holds that, although there can be more than one truth, there is nevertheless such a thing as objective falsity based on evidence.

T his, I think, is what Porter meant by his wry comments yesterday. There is no evidence to say that Fischer was not inspired by the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice—nothing that can objectively falsify that conjecture. Yet there is a good bit of musical and circumstantial evidence to support the possibility that the conjecture is true. Aesthetically, Porter’s conjecture makes sense, is coherent, is constructive. The conjecture leads us in interesting, beautiful, valuable directions with regard to understanding Fischer’s music and Baroque interpretation and performance practice.

P orter’s playing yesterday—of the Fischer ‘Uranie’, and of Bach’s Partita No. 4 BWV 828—was wonderful, and his Orpheus & Eurydice story beforehand was provocative, an added ‘bonus’. Together, they were a highlight of my day. Bravo!

P rior to his appointment at Eastman, Porter was a member of the faculty at Oberlin (1974-1986) and the New England Conservatory (1985-2002), and was director of music at Yale Divinity School. He has taught and performed at the North German Organ Academy, the Italian Academy of Music for the Organ, the Göteborg International Organ Academy, the Dollart Festival, the Lausanne Improvisation Festival, the Smarano Organ and Clavichord Academy, the Boston Early Music Festival, and the National Convention of the American Guild of Organists. He is co-founder of the Boston-based Baroque ensembles Affetti Musicali and Musica Poetica. From 1985 to 1997, Porter was director of music at the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Boston. From 1999 until 2002 he was Artist in Residence at First Lutheran Church in Boston, the venue for yesterday’s BEMF keyboard mini-festival. Besides his faculty position at Eastman, Porter teaches part-time at McGill University. And, whether he likes it or not, Porter does have an entry on Wikipedia. As of this moment, it seems not to contain any errors or wild conjectures.

I  ncidentally, if you are attending BEMF, you may be interested to know that there is a copy of Clancy Martin's new book, Philosophy of Deception, on display in the exhibitors' area on the 6th floor of the Boston Radisson Hotel. Not sure whether it contains any mention of Wikipedia...

 Lynch book