24 July 2009

S°HIP Musica Nuova: Turbulent Love, Teleported from 17th Century Italy to Here & Now

 Musica Nuova, sans Thann Scoggin

O    biondi capelli
Che preso m’havete!
Di voi cosi belli
Amor fa le reti.
Acciò che frà l’ombra
Secùra vi tendi.
E mille poi prendi
Di cuori rubella—
O, biondi capelli!”

[O, blonde hairs
that have captured me!
From you, blond ones,
Love spins nets
that must securely stretch
Amongst the shadows,
there to capture
Thousands of hawt hearts
O, fair hawt hearts!]
  —  Giovanni Ghizzolo, ‘Ahi, quanto ne godo’.
M usica Nuova’s S°HIP performance last night at Emmanuel Church in Boston was thoroughly enjoyable.

T his Musica Nuova performance was part of S°HIP’s twenty-third season, which this year runs for seven weeks (30-JUN through 06-AUG) with events at various venues in and around Boston. Focusing on works from the Renaissance through 18th Century, SoHIP embraces eclectic programs and productions like Musica Nuova’s, as well as more ‘conventional’ HIP (historically-informed performance) interpretations.

T he Emmanuel Church’s Lindsey Chapel, a narrow 12 meters wide by 25 meters long, was acoustically well suited to the size and sound of this ensemble and the 80 or so attendees who turned out for the performance. The conceit for last night’s ‘Turbulent Love Songs’ program was romance in the modern workplace/office. On the steps and floor of the chancel at the front were arranged a filing cabinet, coffee pot, and two back-to-back office chairs and desks where Ms. Keil and Mr. Scoggin conducted their business activities, shuffling and stapling papers, texting on their mobile phones (whence, the program's subtitle ‘BlackBerry® Jam’), and so forth. The nature of their office work is grey, drudgerous, and uninspiring—and each is hoping to find meaning in Life through other non-commercial pursuits. Mr. Scoggin (Tirsi) makes an amorous overture to Ms. Keil (Filli), and the succession of songs carries the pair through a tumultuous arc from initial besotted mutual infatuation, to disappointment and annoyance, to pique (Tirsi pitches the flower he has given to Filli on the floor in disgust), to reconciliation and finally loving rapprochement that comes with each realistically gauging the sentiments and potential that the other offers.

  • da Gagliano (1582-1643)—Lo vidi in terra
  • d’India (1582-1629)—Lo viddi in terra
  • Rossi (1597-1665)—Fanciulla so io
  • Piccinini (1566-1638)—Prelude
  • Caccini (1551-1618)—Ardi, cor mio
  • Caccini—Dolcissimo sospiro
  • Caccini—Non più guerra
  • Cima (1570-1630)—Sonata
  • Ghizzolo (?—c.1625)—Odi, Filli, che tuona
  • Ghizzolo—Ecco, felici Amanti
  • Steffani (1654-1728)—Sia maledetto Amor
  • Frescobaldi (1583-1643)—Partite sopra l’aria della Romanesca
  • Monteverdi (1567-1643)—Voglio di vita uscir
  • Ghizzolo—Tirsi mio, caro Tirsi
  • Piccinini—Toccata IV
  • Monteverdi—Eri già tutta mia
  • Caccinini—Sfogava con le stelle
  • Ghizzolo—Perche piangi pastore?
  • Ghizzolo—Ahi, quanto ne godo
T  irsi’s and Filli’s carryings-on generate paper-hurling, flower-pot slamming, Aeron-chair thwumping, stapling/paperclipping frenzy, and a couple dozen traversals of the chancel steps in un-historically-informed indignant manner. “Boy meets girl; boy gets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back!” Sort of a white-collar ‘Pajama Game’ veering toward the caricature of ‘The Office’. The singing and playing, though, are entirely ‘HIP’ and faithful to the idioms of the 17th Century.

I nstrumental interludes were well-chosen—enhancing the narrative arc and pace of the love story and also showcasing, in turn, the particular strengths of Cartreine’s, Lemire’s, and Shalem’s playing. Scoggin’s and Keil’s singing was masterful; each brought a rich voice and dramatic poignancy to his/her role. The two navigated the tremendous intricacy of the 17th Century Italian texts in a manner that seemed, to us in the audience, nearly effortless. Amazing, in fact.

I  can only imagine that this light-hearted, dramatic production would be successful in engaging young audiences and those who love musicals. In other words, this program would be highly effective for chamber music presenters whose goals include ‘new audience’ development and marketing to those who might not otherwise think they would like 17th Century music.

  • Suzanne Cartreine, harpsichord
  • Amanda Keil, mezzo-soprano
  • Scott Lemire, theorbo
  • Josh Schrieber Shalem, bass & treble viola da gamba
  • Thann Scoggin, baritone
C o-founding Musica Nuova last year, mezzo-soprano Amanda Keil and lutenist Scott Lemire collaborate with Suzanne Cartreine (harpsichord), Joshua Schreiber Shalem (viola da gamba) and Bradford Gleim and Thann Scoggin (baritones).

M usica Nuova takes its name from Giulio Caccini’s 1602 book of songs ‘Le Nuove Musiche’. Caccini was one of the pioneers of monody, a vocal style that involves intensive ornamentation, rhythmic textures, and expressive harmonies. These songs were precursors to modern opera and oratorio.

S uzanne Cartreine, harpsichord, is currently pursuing a MusD in Harpsichord and Historical Performance at Boston University. As a pianist and harpsichordist, she performs solo and chamber music in New England and Canada. As a choral singer she has performed with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tokyo Academy Chorus, among others. Suzie is the organist and Director of Music at the First Parish Church of Stow and Acton, where she conducts two choirs and oversees an active music program that engages over 100 volunteer musicians each year. Under her direction, they have just produced their first CD, In dulci jubilo, a collection of Christmas music. Suzie teaches piano and has a BA in Physics from Macalester College in St. Paul and a MMus in Piano Performance from Temple University.

A manda Keil, mezzo-soprano, has appeared in the role of Florence Pike in Albert Herring and as Third Lady in The Magic Flute [both with the Intermezzo Young Artist Program], Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus [Opera del West], La Chatte in L’enfant et les sortilèges [MetroWest Opera], the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe [MIT], and Nerone in L’Incoronazione di Poppea [OperaHub]. She has appeared with The Boston Camerata in Tristan et Iseult. Amanda holds a masters degree in voice and historical performance from Boston University, and a bachelors degree in French horn performance from The Hartt School.

S cott Lemire performs lute, theorbo, and vihuela, in solo and continuo roles. In addition to Musica Nuova, he has appeared with Sette Monti, Ars et Amici, New York Classical Guitar Society, and Williamsburg, Virginia, Music For A While. He has also performed with several New England orchestras including productions of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and New England Conservatory’s production of Cavalli’s L’Egisto.

J oshua Schreiber Shalem studied cello with Maxine Newman at Bennington College where he was a member of the Bennington Cello Quartet and the Early Music Ensemble. Josh is founding member of the ensembles Seven Times Salt, an English Consort, and Longy & Away, a consort of viols. He is currently completing a Masters of Music at the Longy School of Music, where he studies with Jane Hershey. In addition to his performance and Feldenkrais activities, Josh is active in Boston’s Jewish community as an educator and cantorial soloist.

T hann Scoggin, baritone, has appeared as soloist with numerous ensembles in such diverse concert repertoire as Monteverdi’s Selva morale, J. S. Bach’s St. John and St. Matthew Passions, Telemann’s Der Tod Jesu, Handel’s Messiah, Beethoven’s Mass in C, the Requiems of Fauré and Duruflé, and Arvo Pärt’s ‘Passio’. His operatic repertoire includes the roles of Leporello in Don Giovanni, Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte, and Betto in Gianni Schicchi. He took his Bachelor’s degree at UNT, where he studied early music performance with Lyle Nordstrom and Lenora McCroskey. Before relocating to Boston in 2007, Thann appeared regularly with the Dallas Bach Society, Orchestra of New Spain, Texas Choral Artists, the Helios Ensemble, and the University of North Texas Collegium Musicum. Besides Music Nuova, Thann currently performs with Exsultemus, the Boston Secession and the choir of the Church of the Advent.

T he next SoHIP event will be 7 Hills Renaissance Wind Band (16th Century German Wind Music from the Hapsburg Courts) on Tuesday, 28-JUL.

19 July 2009

Tor Aspaas & Per Skalstad Duo: ‘Story’ and ‘Return’ in Norwegian Violin-Piano Miniatures

 Tor Aspaas

G   arborg’s novels are profound and gripping while his essays are clear and insightful. He was never inclined to steer clear of controversy. His work tackled the issues of the day, including the relevance of religion in modern times, the conflicts between national and European identity, and the ability of the common people to actually participate in political processes and decisions. Although he was to become known as an author, it was as a newspaperman that he got his start. In 1872 he established the newspaper Tvedestrandsposten, and in 1877 the Fedraheimen, where he served as managing editor until 1892. In the 1880s he was also a journalist for the Dagbladet in Oslo.”

 Per Skalstad
I f you are about to perform a ‘miniature’—or any piece, really—it’s good to first take a moment and re-tell yourself a story that, to you, the piece embodies. “Write it down and clip it onto the sheet music,” my piano teacher told me when I was 8. “If the composer didn’t say what story the music is telling, then you need to make up a story. Or else how are you going to know what you’re going to say, or how you’re going to say it?” Five decades later, I continue to think that that’s a great idea. If a story wasn’t supplied by the composer, then you need to make one up. Make one up, write it down, remind yourself of it each time, right before you begin playing the piece.

 Johan Halvorsen, Suite Mosaique, No. 4: Chant de Veslemøy, mm. 1 - 11

    [50-sec clip, Tor Espe Aspaas & Per Kristian Skalstad, Johan Halvorsen, ‘Suite Mosaique, No. 4: Chant de Veslemøy’, 1.6MB MP3]

 Johan Halvorsen, Suite Mosaique, No. 4: Chant de Veslemøy, mm. 17 - 24

    [50-sec clip, Tor Espe Aspaas & Per Kristian Skalstad, Johan Halvorsen, ‘Suite Mosaique, No. 4: Chant de Veslemøy’, 1.6MB MP3]

T or Aspaas and Per Skalstad are very good at telling stories. They must’ve had music teachers like Ruth Mapson of my own childhood.

V eslemøy—in morose, poignant, fateful F-sharp minor. Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata is in F-sharp minor... Also, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 1... Scriabin’s Piano Concerto and his Piano Sonata No. 3, too. Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Vieuxtemps’s Violin Concerto No. 2... Second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23... Reger’s and Tippett’s second string quartets; Shostakovich’s string quartet No. 7... Two of Chopin’s mazurkas, plus a nocturne... Last but not least, two preludes and fugues in J. S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier are in F-sharp minor. F-sharp minor carries a lot of ‘attitude’.

F   -sharp minor, although it leads to great distress, nevertheless is more languid and ‘love-sick’ than lethal. Moreover, it has something abandoned, singular, and misanthropic about it.”
  —  Johann Mattheson, 1713.
B ut what about Veslemøy? What do we know about ‘Veslemøy’?

I n Norwegian, it nominally means “little girl” ... a compound of ‘vesle’ = “little” and ‘møy’ = “girl”. But it’s way more than that. This name was used by Norwegian author Arne Garborg for the main character in his epic poem ‘Haugtussa’ [The Mountain; literally ‘heap of rocks’] (1895). Almost certainly this popular Neo-Romantic Garborg poem was the inspiration for Halvorsen when he wrote this Suite in 1898. But the idiomatic compound ‘veslemøy’ was a commonplace way before Garborg even. It connotes ‘fairy’ or ‘sylph’—mysterious; charming and beautiful but creepy; other-worldly.

 Statue of Arne Garborg, Knudaheio, Norway
T he poem is propelled by Garborg’s rural culture and infused with its values and lore. A number of supernatural beings—like the Draug, the Hulderpeople, and other characters from Norse mythology inhabit the epic. A ‘haugtussa’ is originally a female subterrestrial (a woman troglodyte of the Hulder race). But here the main character, beautiful young above-ground Veslemøy, is revealed to be a Hulder and a haugtussa. The 219-page poem is dark and foreboding; it is not for no reason that its sequel, published in 1900, was ‘I Helheim’ (In Hell). More than a stereotypical, ever-cheerful Norsk outlook    Garborg was rendering Dante-like divina commedia, a long oblique rant against the church and what he felt were deleterious social effects of church dogma and pious blind eyes turned away from real problems in the world—poverty, starvation, indignity, suffering.

V eslemøy (also called Gislaug) is the youngest of three sisters, and lives with her elderly mother near Jæren in rural Norway, south of Boknafjorden and northwest of Dalane in the county of Rogaland. The oldest sister has died, we are not sure how, maybe from tuberculosis, and her other sister has fled some time ago from the countryside to the big city—by implication, that sister has become a prostitute, wild and estranged from her family. So Veslemoy and her old mother are alone.

T hey are dirt-poor and live as tenants on a farm; like characters in a fantastical Haldor Laxness novel, they are harassed to their wits’ end by the local land-owner.

V eslemøy has a precocious natural insight into people and situations. She is savant-like in her surprising confabulations, each story containing enough kernels of truth to have a devastating verisimilitude. Other kids (and adults, too) gather around her to hear her tell stories, or to pose riddles—a famous winter fireside pastime for us fun-loving Norwegians.

V eslemøy habitually makes up stories, stories upon stories. One night, her dead sister visits Veslemoy and tells her that she is endowed with the capacity for ‘second sight’, to be psychic, and to foretell what will happen. Veslemøy’s stories are not entirely her ‘own’, and Veslemøy’s compulsion to tell them is not necessarily hers to control. The sister’s revelation is a great burden to Veslemøy, but she has no choice but to accept it.

G arborg’s point seems to be that it is better to be a ‘seer’—better to be spiritually ‘awake’ in a Zen sort of way or the state of Bodhi awake-ness attained by the Indian spiritual teacher Gautama Buddha and his disciples—than to be stultified/mortified by the oppression of routine day-to-day life and the paternalistic rule of priests. From this point forward, visions haunt Veslemøy, and the netherworld spirits pursue her. She is narrowly avoids being abducted underground by the Hulders. She has also the ability to see what symbolic animal spirit each person around her has behind him or her.

V eslemøy experiences the problems of tweens in any age: crazy first love, almost gets engaged to the kid on the farm down the road. Instead, the foolish boy finagles marrying a rich girl, and the experience of being dumped unhinges Veslemøy. Veslemøy has to fight even harder with her inner demons, who abduct her into the mountains. There, she meets trolls—some who are decent souls and others of ill repute. She commiserates with them about their crappy fate as outcasts, and how they have been deprived of a life worth living. The Haugkall (mountain king) proposes to marry her, despite the outrageous difference in their ages. She tells him No, Hell No [Well, actually she collapses because she sees that he has the mouth of a rat.] and is brought home sick and delirious. At the end of the poem, the dead sister consoles her again, and admonishes her to buck up and to get ready descend into Hell, accompanied by a volve/voluspa/goddess/wizard/witch/wolfwoman who will teach her “through horror, the work which will become your honor”.

H   er ser du Visdoms Volve staa.
Ho vil deg gjeva djupt aa sjaa
og store Røynslur herde.
Ho bèr deg gjennom Helheims Gov;
der skal du skimte Livsens Lov
og gjennom Rædsle lære
det Verk, som vert di Ære.

[Here before you Wisdom—Volve—stands.
She gives you depth of seeing
and lets you hear what big Røynslur hears.
She compels you to go to Hell
where you can’t help but glimpse the Law of All Life
and from Horrors-more-than-Faith learn
that work which must be(come) your Fate-Honor.]
  —  Arne Garborg, ‘Haugtussa’, 1895.
 Johan Halvorsen
S o Halvorsen didn’t need to write any story or provide program notes or annotations to his music; the notions above would’ve been familiar (from Garborg’s Haugtussa 1895 poem, or from Grieg’s Haugtussa lieder from the same year) to any Scandinavian who would’ve heard Halvorsen’s violin-piano duo in 1898 or the years shortly after.

B ut we need to write the story down and remember it, to make these few notes mean something. For us, Halvorsen’s chamber music—much of it, except, say, for the Passacaglia and Sarabande Duos for violin and viola—might seem sentimental or dated, hence, dismissible, if we don’t bother to find out about what motivated the composer to write it. We need to invest a little energy to find out why it mattered at the time—what the social context was, who the performers and early audiences for the works were, and what they cared about—in order to accurately value the works. In the case of Halvorsen, Aspaas and Skalstad do a wonderful job of reanimating these pieces, entering into them, and reminding us of the characters’ stories—and how being ‘awake’ and engaged matters in present-day society. Fear and absurd suffering as the ‘juice’ for creating meaning and redeeming humankind; theodicy; the eternal return; Neo/TheOne; an 1895 feminist ‘Matrix’, sort of.

S o Halvorsen’s violin-piano duos are nothing like Stravinsky, Elgar, Elliot Carter—any of the works that fill the 110 pages of ‘violin-piano’ repertoire in Hinson’s book. We have wonderful violin double-stopped consonance flavored by piano dissonance. We have haunting, brooding, poignant, elegant, serious recital behavior, not encore bon bons. We have exalting, transcendent phrasing if you are careful and listen for it. The pieces are short. If you blink, you’ll miss it.

B rahms tries to make the violin and piano co-equals; Schumann instead often pitches the violin as a virtuosic protagonist against the piano. But those are ‘big’ works. The small scope and small timescale of miniatures like Halvorsen’s don’t allow for that kind of dramatic development. Instead, we have these mystical, Neo-Romantic microfictions.

T he uneven weight between the bowed and hammered strings does not have time to sink-in or become problematical. The piano roams free in the middle and treble registers, just as a microfiction character would. Listeners’/readers’ minds are obliged to interpolate, to read between the lines. Microfiction will not support any expectation of explicit storytelling. It is all between the lines. It must be so. There are too few lines for it to be otherwise. So, with microfiction (i.e., miniatures like Halvorsen’s), we understand its ground-rules before we begin, and we relish the extra interpretive responsibility that the author/composer places on us.

Y ou might think that miniatures would be ideal for our time—an era of short attention-spans and a taste for sound-bites and web-surfing. But no. The small size actually requires patience and effort.

T he replication 8-8 | 8-8 in this 32-bar piece provides a natural suggestion of reconsideration. Not ‘repetition’ but something more like... like... like Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’ where different chapters are told from the point of view of different characters, whose personalities change as the story proceeds. Veslemøy above ground starts with a downbow, with the mute on (piano-violin duo, with the mute on!), and the Veslemøy underground, bowing inverted now begins with upbow. The violin before, and the violin after. Piano, trans-substantiated; shape-shifting piano. The repetition/reconsideration/return (with the upbow/downbow inversion effects and with properly calibrated subterranean piano pedaling) provides us a chance to get inside each character’s mind and discover each character’s uncertainties—about what is real and what is illusion; about who one is and who one was/will be. Fiction? Hardly!

W e find that each character is receptive to all types of detail. Poetics are found in merely taking a drink of water; magic is found in merely talking to the wolf. Don’t ignore the wolf or pretend like it’s not there. You’d better talk to it.

I f this stuff interests you, please have a look at Kristin Rygg’s nice chapter in Ulla-Britta Lagerroth and Erik Hedling’s book (link below). Clairvoyance, mystical duties, the obligation to give voice to songs not yet born, the symbolic meanings of upbow and downbow.

T or Aspaas was born in 1971 in Røros. Aspaas received his Diploma in Piano Performance in 1996, studying with Liv Glaser and Jens Harald Bratlie. Since 2007 he has served as professor of piano on the faculty of the Academy in Oslo. He is particularly active and sought after as a chamber musician; ensemble performance and accompaniment are also his specialties at the Academy. Besides his concertizing and teaching activities, Aspaas has served as artistic director for the chamber music festival Vinterfestspill in Bergstaden on Røros since 1999.

P er Skalstad was born in 1972. At age 12, he entered the Norwegian State Academy of Music (NSAM) in Oslo, pursuing both piano and violin. Skalstad got his Diploma of Violin Performance in 1995, studying with Stig Nilsson, Lars Anders Tomter and Camilla Wicks. In 2002, he completed his Diploma of Conducting, also at NSAM. In 1988 Skalstad joined the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. With the NCO, Skalstad plays the viola when needed. Per founded the Oslo String Quartet in 1991, with Geir Inge Lotsberg (viola), Åre Sandbakken and Øystein Sonstad (cello). Skalstad was assistant concertmaster in the Norwegian Opera Orchestra from 1993 to 2005, and he has performed as a soloist with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, the Bergen Philharmonic, the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and the Risør Festival Strings. In the 2004 Halvorsen recording with Aspaas, Skalstad played on the Halvorsen`s 1705 Rogeri.

    Johan Halvorsen Chamber Music
  • 6 Stimmungsbilder for Violin and Piano (1890)
  • Suite in G Minor for Violin and Piano (1890)
  • Danses norvégiennes for Violin and Piano (1897)
  • Elegie for Violin and Piano (1897)
  • Passacaglia in G Minor on the Theme by Georg Friedrich Händel (from Harpsichord Suite in G minor, HWV 432) for Violin and Viola (1897)
  • Sarabande con Variazioni in G Minor on the Theme by Georg Friedrich Händel for Violin and Viola (1897)
  • Crépuscule for Violin and Piano (1898)
  • Suite Mosaïque for Violin and Piano (1898)
  • String Quartet in E, Op.10 (1901)
  • Little Dance Suite for Violin and Piano, Op.22 (1902)
  • Slåtter for Violin Solo (1903)
  • Miniatures, 5 Easy Pieces for 2 Violins and Piano, Op.29 (1910)
  • To serenader for Violin and Piano
  • Norske viser og danse for Violin and Piano
  • Concert Caprice on Norwegian Melodies for 2 Violins
 Aspaas-Skalstad CD of Halvorsen violin-piano duos
J    ust knowing the dream, just knowing the song,
the tune will hold fast in your mem’ry—
seductively beckoning the whole day long.”
  —  Arne Garborg, ‘Haugtussa’, 1895.

17 July 2009

Chamber Tabla and Cognitive ‘Affordances’

 Ustad Zakir Hussain

T    he mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan looked to create some of the most complex mathematical patterns of all time. We are all looking [listening]. The question is who can see [hear].”
  —  Simon McBurney, Ensemble Complicite, ‘A Disappearing Number’, London, Barbican, 2007.
C    ognitive phenomena do not always respect the ‘boundaries’ that are observed by textbooks and conferences in cognitive science. Consider the mirror neuron system—neurons in the premotor cortex that fire both when observing and performing an action. This discovery has challenged the assumed distinction between perception and action in the brain. While the human capacity to perceive opportunities for action (i.e., ‘affordances’; Gibson, 1979) has been extensively documented, it appears that even non-action-related judgments are in the ‘currency of action’... Cognitive phenomena do not always respect the boundaries that we draw between people either. Cognitive science has been concerned with the individual in isolation. But there have been striking insights into the brain’s sensitivity to social information and the way in which people think and act cooperatively [as exemplified in music].”
  —  Kevin Shockley (Center for Cognition, Action and Perception, Univ Cincinnati), Daniel Richardson (Cognitive, Perceptual & Brain Sci, Univ College London), Rick Dale (Dept Psychology, Univ Memphis), Topics in Cognitive Science 2009; 1:305-19.
S peed for speed’s sake—or overly complex rhythmic structures, or insincere utilization of mathematical calculations as a performance or compositional device—can justly be criticized as aesthetically weak or contrived. Authenticity is threatened by throw-down theory. Virtuosic technic can only be redeemed by genuine feeling. The person in the street needs ‘ghazals’, not maths.

A nd yet... There are some musics whose rhythmic structure is unabashedly mathematical yet deeply moving. Tabla music, for example; and particularly performances by Ustad Zakir Hussain, or his father Ustad Alla Rakha who passed away in 2001. The mathematical design takes into account the length of each phrase, the duration of each pause that comes after the last DHA of each phrase, and the starting point of each tihai (see Gottlieb's book). There is a carefully worked-out, “composed” element, but there are necessarily the wonderful, small-scale human improvisational elements as well. [It's hard to conceive of anything less musical than a MIDI drum machine tabla executing mathematics-governed tabla rhythms. Gotta be “live”.] Here is link to a figure in Robert Gottlieb’s book on tabla, showing (left hand column) the rational-number relationships of tabla rhythms/metrical patterns.

 Gottlieb: Darja of Lay
 Ustad Alla Rakha

    [50-sec clip, Ustad Alla Rakha & Ustad Zakir Hussain, Together, ‘Taal Rupak’, 1.6MB MP3]

T he rhythmic pattern of this MP3 clip is a 'rupak taal', with 7 matras (beats). The word 'chhand' (metrical pattern) is used when constructing the linear superposition of one taal on another--'rupak chhand'.

T abla sets consist of a smaller teak or rosewood drum (dāyāñ=right=dominant_hand) and a larger metal drum (bāyāñ=left). Each has a drumhead (shāī or gāb) and is nested in cushions (chutta or guddi). The head is tuned with a small hammer (hathodi)—traditionally by inserting tuning blocks (ghatta) into the cords fastening the drumhead to the drum; alternatively, by wrench-adjustable threaded rods on modern instruments, much like other drums. The performer’s hands are coated with talc powder to provide the right ‘touch’ and to insure that the heads don’t get damaged by skin moisture or oils.

 Pudi drumhead
T here are several traditional styles of playing the tabla in India, each of which entails a specific playing idiom and performance rules. Two main styles of tabla are Dilli Baj and Purbi Baj. Dilli (or Delhi) baj developed in Delhi, and Purbi (meaning eastern) baj developed in the area east of Delhi. Delhi Baj is also known as Chati baj (chati is a part of the tabla from which a particularly sonorous tone can be evoked). Musicians then recognize six gharānās (schools or traditions) of tabla playing.

  • Delhi gharānā
  • Lucknow gharānā
  • Ajrara gharānā
  • Farukhabad gharānā
  • Benares gharānā
  • Punjab gharānā
I t is the last of these that Alla Rakha and Hussain are exponents of, although there are ‘free-style’ elements in their work as well.

 Tabla Lucknow
E ach gharānā is distinct in terms of compositional and playing styles. For instance, some gharānās involve different positionings of the tabla and ‘bol’ percussive techniques. Today many of the distinctions between the gharānā have been blurred as successive generations of players have chosen to combine aspects from multiple gharānās to evolve their own ‘voice’. Some traditionalists say the era of authentic gharānā has basically ended insofar as the unique aspects of each gharānā have been substantially corrupted by individualistic mixing of styles and current socio-economic disincentives for sustaining the old “lineal purity” of gharānā through long and rigorous apprenticeships.

 Rakha & Hussain
P unjab gharana music bears the influence of the Punjabi language and its mathematical, long-range order-admiring temperament. These are closely linked, and in fact a number of Hussain’s and Alla Rakha’s pieces incorporate densely rhythmic vocal parts as complements to the tabla and other instruments. Among the important composition forms of this style are Punjabi-Gat and Chakradar.

 Tabla notation
A jrada gharana features ‘kaidas’ (qā’idas, al Qaedas?). Graceful figures... less intricate canonical rhythmic structures, compared to Punjab pieces—at least in the examples I’ve been able to hear so far. As a special tonal characteristics of this tabla style are the phrases: GHE NA and GHE GE, GE NA DHA and DHA GE NE, and NE DHI and DHINE DHINA.

D elhi gharana is typically crisp and brilliant—more overtly individualistic compared to ‘collectivistic’, self-effacing tendencies in other gharana. The flowing, streamlike qualities of the rhythmic arc are distinctive. The Delhi-style is also known as Kinari-ka-baj-baj Kinar, which means, more or less, ‘Kinar under control’, while Kinar (literally: the edge, shore), a hard, clear sound is concerned, on the edge of the Dayan is generated. Characteristic phrases of this style are TI TE, DHINA GINA, DHAGE DHINA GINA, DHINA NOS.

M y own fascination with tabla music, its mathematical underpinnings, its drama arising from the tensions between individualism and collectivism, and its chamber-music-like intimations of psychophysical/neurocognitive ‘affordances’ between the performers—is just beginning. If you have experience in tabla performance or composition, I would be most grateful for your comments and suggestions as to how I might better understand and learn this beautiful music. Thank you!

 Bach & Ganesh
P    eople like us who believe in physics know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
  —  Albert Einstein.

16 July 2009

Jonathan Kolm: Air on a Super-String


L    ove is most nearly itself
When ‘here’ and ‘now’ cease to matter.”
  —  T.S. Eliot.
J onathan Kolm’s recent compositions reveal that physics can be a rich source of compositional ideas. In particular, Jonathan’s ‘Quantum Music’, a 24-minute chamber work for oboe, clarinet, violin, and cello that received its première in Richmond, Virginia, in 2001 is explicitly evocative of quantum uncertainty, entanglement, and randomness/stochastics. This piece won the third place prize in 2002’s National Federation of Music Clubs Contest. The textures are interesting throughout, and the narrative arc is accessible and deeply moving. Surprisingly so, considering the ‘representational’ motivations and title of the piece.

A ccording to Susan Strehle, [Binghamton University (SUNY) Dept of English], artists who are ‘actualists’ balance attention to questions of art with an engaged meditation on the external, actual world. While ‘actualist novels’ or ‘actualist paintings’ or ‘actualist compositions’ diverge markedly from ‘realist’ representational practice, Strehle claims that they do so in order to reflect more acutely what we perceive as ‘real’. Reality is no longer merely or conventionally ‘realistic’. In the new physical or quantum universe, reality is discontinuous, energetic, relative, statistical, ‘subjectively seen’, and ‘uncertainly known’—all terms taken from physics.

A    ccording to conventional aesthetics, [music] aims either at realistic representation of life or at the anti-realistic exploration of artistic processes. It selectively focuses either on human reality or on the linguistic and formal rendering that constitutes its art. Fictional choices work this way because, for traditional theorists, perception itself functions in ‘either-or’ fashion... [Composers] therefore direct the [listeners; performers] to observe either the garden outside the window or the glass through which the garden appears... The legacy of these assumptions becomes especially restrictive—even blinding, I would argue—for critics of post-modern [music].”
  —  Susan Strehle, p. 1.
A nother of Kolm’s physics-inspired pieces, this time on a cosmology/astrophysics scale, is ‘The Primitive Cosmos’ for 10 percussion (3 marimbas (one 4 1/2 octave), 2 vibraphones, xylophone, bells, timpani and 2 multi-percussionists). This won second-place in 2001’s Percussive Arts Society competition. This piece is intensely rhythmic, taut yet somehow simultaneously tranquil—astonishingly so. Rhythmic ‘mass’ is interconvertible to-from ‘energy’. Beautiful!

O ur minds have difficulty visualizing higher dimensions because we can only move in three spatial dimensions. One way of dealing with this limitation is not to try to visualize higher dimensions at all, but just to think of them as extra numbers in the equations that describe how the world works—or, in the case of Jonathan Kolm, how his music works. This opens the question of whether these ‘extra numbers’ can be investigated directly in any experiment/performance (which necessarily give different results/effects in 1, 2, or 2+1 dimensions to a human scientist/listener/performer).

T his, in turn, raises the question of whether models that rely on such abstract modeling—and potentially impossibly-huge experimental apparatus/ensembles—can be considered scientific/musical. Six-dimensional Calabi-Yau shapes (like the jpeg above) can account for the additional dimensions required by superstring theory. Superstring theory says that every point in space (or whatever we had previously considered a ‘point’) is in fact a tiny topological ‘manifold’ where each extra dimension has a size on the order of the Planck length/nanoquaver. Kolm’s ‘Quantum Music’ evokes impressions along these lines, especially the woodwind parts’ articulations.

B ohmian mechanics’ was formulated in 1952 by David Bohm as an ontological theory of quantum phenomena. It was revisited and expanded some decades later by John S. Bell. Bell investigated the ‘nonlocal’ structure and implications of Bohm’s theory and was led to formulate Bell’s inequalities. Experimental tests of the inequalities verified that Nature is nonlocal—capable of long-range correlations and ‘entanglements’ between two or more particles separated in space. Bohmian mechanics has since then prospered as a logical counterpart of quantum mechanics. Bohmian mechanics concerns the motion of elementary particles. Statistical analysis of these yields the formalism of quantum mechanics in terms of mathematical Hilbert spaces, self-adjoint operator-observables, and projection and positive operator-valued metrics. Tunneling times, ‘arrival times’, and ‘first-exit times’ are mathematically modeled in Bohmian mechanics. I do not know whether Jonathan Kolm has employed the mathematical abstractions of Bohmian mechanics as part of his compositional practice, but the features of his instrumental writing suggest that this may be so.

 Jonathan Kolm
J onathan Kolm’s music combines emotional intensity and rich harmonic colors and has been recognized with awards and prizes in national competitions—in choral works in addition to his instrumental compositions. In 2008 he participated in the American Composers Forum workshop for new choral music working with conductor Philip Brunelle and Vocal Essence. He has had several choral commissions by the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus and other groups. ‘A Dream within a Dream’ (soprano, cello and piano) and ‘Winter Heavens’, premiered in New York City by the New York Virtuoso Singers, are notable. He was a Symposium Fellow at MUSIC05 in Cincinnati where his piece for three percussionists on one vibraphone ‘Warrior from the Deep’ was premiered. ‘Crystal Fantasy’, for violin, cello, flute, and clarinet was performed at the Dallas Museum of Art where it won second place in the 2005 Voices of Change Composition Contest. In 2006 a cantata for choir and orchestra was commissioned and premiered in April, 2006 in Austin, Texas, as well as set of pieces for violin and piano that were commissioned by the Austin Eurhythmy Ensemble and premiered in St. Paul, Minnesota, in May, 2006, and has been favored with many subsequent performances. His work for SATB chorus ‘Cedo Maiori’ was premiered in October 2006 in New York City by the New York Virtuoso Singers at Columbia University.

U nlike many composers of new music with unswerving devotion to white-on-white, Jonathan Kolm is clearly unafraid of sonic ‘color’. He floods his compositions with natural light to achieve a constantly-changing interior and multiple gradations of intimacy. He is unafraid of introducing bold acoustic colors, covers Le Corbusier celloistic club-chairs with purple oboe and blue clarinet fabrics.

N ature and physics give us an uncountable infinity of variations on the theme of quantum ‘indistinguishability’. In some variations, the theme is obvious; in others it is hidden. In physics, quantum ‘entanglement’ has priority over ‘indistinguishability’. Entanglement is the heart of quantum physics. If there were no entanglement but only one-particle interferences, then why should we not just accept a wave theory as an adequate account of the phenomena? We are able to know that this photon or this clarinet expression is a quantum object because we know that two photons or an oboe and a clarinet can become entangled even though they are spatially separated. Their quantum structureness is made palpable by the parts’ entanglement—the way they are written, the way they are played.

B y ‘quantum structures’ we mean systems of events that model abstract quantum mechanical processes. If you are interested in this stuff (for your own use in composing, or as an aid to analysis of music like this) there is a highly-readable discussion of these things in Mirko Navara’s chapter in Engesser, Gabbay, and Lehmann’s book (pp. 335ff).

J onathan received his DMA in Composition from the University of Texas at Austin in 2007. He previously had taken his MM in Composition at Virginia Commonwealth University (2000). He is currently Asst. Prof. of Composition and Music Education at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.