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.”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.
Institutul Cultural Român, 2009.
[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’.”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.
Institutul Cultural Român, 2009.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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?
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.”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’.
Eric Chafe, Symbolum, p. 14.
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.
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.
- Adina Spire website
- Festival La Folia 2010
- La Folia page at Wikipedia
- La Folia - A Musical Cathedral
- St. Romanos the Melodist. On the Life of Christ: Kontakia. Harper, 1995.
- Kontakion page at Wikipedia
- Marin Marais 'La Folia'
- Archangelo Corelli 'La Folia'
- Antonio Vivaldi 'La Folia'
- Tarantella page at Wikipedia
- Backman E. Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine. Allen & Unwin, 1952. Pp. 244-50.
- Burkholder J, Giger A, Cox F, Bircher D. Musical Borrowing. Center for History of Music Theory & Literature. Univ Indiana.
- Chafe E. Tonal Allegory in the Vocal Music of J.S. Bach. Univ California, 1991.
- Donaldson L, Cavanagh J, Rankin J. The dancing plague: a public health conundrum. Public Health. 1997;111:201-4.
- Hauser A. The Social History of Art: Renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque. 3e. Routledge, 1999.
- Koerner B. A medieval dance craze. Was twisting a disease? U.S. News World Rep. 1999 Dec 20;127(24):61.
- Krack P. Relicts of dancing mania: the dancing procession of Echternach. Neurology. 1999;53:2169-72.
- Kriwaczek R. The Art of Funerary Violin. Overlook, 2006.
- Maniates M. Mannerism in Italian Music & Culture, 1530-1630. Univ North Carolina, 1979.
- Park R, Park M. Saint Vitus’ dance: Vital misconceptions by Sydenham and Bruegel. J Roy Soc Med 1990; 83:512-8.
- Smith T. Why did Bach write canons? Sojourn, 1996.
- Stowell R. Cambridge Companion to the Cello. Cambridge Univ, 1999.