22 June 2011

Processionals: Repetitions, Situational Minimalism, and Elgar’s ‘Pomp and Circumstance’

CCM Brass Quintet

T   he kind of learning that will define the 21st Century is not taking place in a classroom. Rather, it is happening all around us, everywhere. We call this the new culture of learning... a fluid infrastructure where everything is constantly creating and responding to change... This new type of learning process is a cultural phenomenon that underlies a large number of people’s experiences and affects them in myriad ways. It takes place without teachers, without classrooms, and it requires [virtual, networked] environments that are bounded yet provide complete freedom of action within those boundaries.”
  — Douglas Thomas & John Seely Brown.
F   arewell, the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality—
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!”
  —  Shakespeare, Othello, Act III, Scene III.
T here is a big challenge in shaping the performance, vamping as it must for an indeterminate length of time while the procession continues.

T he CCM Brass Quintet did an admirable job sustaining audience interest throughout, projecting every note with the necessary dignity and authority. They varied the dynamics, softer to convey an intimate feeling while still staying audible in the large arena, louder to convey more pomp and aggrandizement. They varied the instrumentation, the round timbre of lower brass to convey a magisterial attitude, the bright timbre of high brass to convey heraldic progress.

CCM Brass QuintetT he physical stamina required for what can be a very long performance is considerable, a gauntlet made all the more risky to run insofar as there are only five of you (or 4 at a time, if trumpets are alternating). The thing then amounts to a 20-min quartet or, in some passages, amounts to a trio or duet ordeal, depending on the arrangement.

W hen you are repeating and repeating the same short passage for 20+ minutes, there is a natural temptation to embark on small improvisations or decorate some figures a little. Somewhat like turning a word over and over in your mind until it looks nonsensical or silly, or until finally you wonder how the word was ever coined or came to be associated with the thing it names ... tangelo, tan-gelo, tan-ge-lo, tange-lo... t’angel-o.

T he CCM Brass Quintet played nice little fanfares throughout, for all of the graduates. But when graduates of the conservatory (CCM) approached the lectern, the Quintet’s fanfares mutated into ones that were longer by several ostentatious bars, with dilatory flourishes and a grand unpredictability… droll extra service, musicians proclaiming the specialness of other musicians, heh!

E stablishing a strong relationship with a faculty mentor is one of the most important factors in determining the success one achieves as a graduate student. Faculty members “know the ropes,” so to speak, and their guidance on research, and on professional and personal conduct, can be invaluable. Typically, a faculty mentor is someone whose research interests are similar to those of the student. As such, the mentor can be an excellent source for ideas and can serve as an informed reviewer of and advocate for the student’s work.

F or those who have succeeded in establishing a strong relationship with a faculty mentor, the prospect of that relationship changing—or becoming more distant—contributes to the tumult of emotions that well-up during the graduation ceremony. Well, not to worry, usually moving away and the resulting absence make the hearts grow stronger. They will remember you fondly, more fondly than when you were slaving away, nearly for free, in their face everyday.

F or those whose mentors’ neuroses aligned in perfectly perverse way with the mentees’ neuroses, graduation may feel like a long, badly-written fugue has concluded. Begin your next Prelude, ASAP, with Pomp and Circumstance marches played by brass quintet:
  • March No. 1 in D (1901)
  • March No. 2 in A minor (1901)
  • March No. 3 in C minor (1904)
  • March No. 4 in G (1907)
  • March No. 5 in C (1930)
  • March No. 6 in G minor
Will, with Dumbledore?
Elgar Chamber Music:
  • Romance for violin and piano, Op. 1 (1878)
  • Salut d’Amour for violin and piano, Op. 12 (1888)
  • Chanson de Nuit and Chanson de Matin for violin and piano, Op. 15 Nos. 1 and 2 (1897/1899).
  • Violin Sonata in E minor, Op. 82 (1918)
  • String Quartet in E minor, Op. 83 (1918)
  • Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84 (1918–1919)
  • Concert Allegro, piano, Op. 46 (1901)
  • Organ Sonata in G, Op. 28 ()



18 June 2011

Nicholas Kitchen: Are Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin Scale-Invariant ‘Fractal’ Works?

Nicholas Kitchen, NE Historic Genealogical Soc, 18-JUN-2011

W   hen I was, I think, 8 years old, I first heard Bach’s Ciaccona, from the Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004. I could not stop listening to it. I wore out the record. Afterward, looking at that vinyl record across the room, you could see that that band on the record’s surface… could see that the grooves were completely gone.”
  — Nicholas Kitchen, remarks at BEMF recital, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 18-JUN-2011.
T   his page in the manuscript [of the Sonatas and Partitas], where the end of the Ciaccona is followed immediately by the beginning of the next Sonata, one right after the other, on the same page—this is what revealed to me that there is a ‘glue’ that Bach had devised that is holding these pieces all together. The multiple pairs and powers-of-2 in these pieces, the recurrences of palindromes and the inversions in these pieces—these are not [conveniences; mere expediencies]. All of these pairs form a great monumental ‘architecture’ upon which emotions can be expressed and better understood.”
  —  Nicholas Kitchen, remarks at BEMF recital, New England Historic Genealogical Society, 18-JUN-2011.
A lways when you listen to Nicholas Kitchen perform and/or speak, you will learn things that you would never have expected.

N icholas’s performance today of major portions of Bach’s solo violin works [Partita No. 1 BWV 1002; Partita No. 2 BWV 1004; Sonata No. 3 BWV 1005; Partita No. 3 BWV 1006] was a complete joy for us. And, amazingly, the acoustics were not bothered at all by the Stanley Cup-winning Boston Bruins and their more than 1 million boisterous fans jamming the streets just outside the recital hall.

K itchen vividly accounted for the correspondences among these works, noting the various plausible motivations for Bach’s G minor-B minor-A minor-D minor-C major-E major affective and intervallic progressions.

M ore than this, though, Kitchen discussed the ingenious sequences of meters and tempi, which constitute a Daubechies-like ‘wavelet’ Z-shape over the course of these pieces, performed in this order. Nicholas’s expressions were phrased in terms of geometric series (powers-of-2, and powers-of-3) in a way that is understandable for general audiences of all ages. And his explanations emphasized the sequences—the succession of structures that govern the architecture of these pieces—that is, he described things in a linear, narrative way that is the natural and preferred idiom when teaching or explaining things to people.

B ut it was clear from his gestures, and from the way that he plays these Bach works for solo violin, that Nicholas is also thinking of how these multi-scale structures look when the metric and harmonic time-domain patterns are transformed into frequency-domain by Fourier Transforms or Wavelet Transforms.

T he textural parallels—the sacred posture of the sonatas, juxtaposed with the equal/noninferior profane dance-tune posture of the partitas—occur on various scales, from ‘micro’ scales within a single measure, to ‘macro’ scales involving power-of-2 multiples of measures, to ‘hyper’ scales involving all 6 of these works. The works contain structures that are reminiscent of fractal scale-invariant symmetries where the smallest structure embodies features of the largest and all scales in between.

A  perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon! Bravo!

Daubechies wavelet[James Nicolson and Board of Directors present Nicholas Kitchen with the 2011 CSEM Arion prize]

Nicholas Kitchen

Daubechies wavelet



¡Sacabuche! Matteo Ricci: His Map and Music

Sacabuche, IU Jacobs School of Music

J   ust as western countries have never heard the teaching of the sages of China, so we Chinese have never heard of the books of their ancient sages. Both now enlighten each other; both benefit one another.”
  — Feng Yingjing, acquaintance of Fr. Matteo Ricci, 16th-Century China.
S acabuche! is an ensemble of Chinese and western instruments and voices directed by Linda Pearse. Sacabuche! performed a series of concerts and workshops in Beijing, China, in December, 2010, and yesterday at BEMF in Boston offered a multimedia performance of their work about the Italian Jesuit priest (and mathematician, scientist, cartographer, and all-around polymath), Matteo Ricci, whose decades spent in China in the late 16th century resulted in the first map in Chinese. Ricci’s detailed map, completed and presented to the Wanli Emperor in 1602, showed the entire world—eastern and western hemispheres—surprising and edifying both the Chinese and the Italians.

I U Jacobs School of Music faculty members Stanley Ritchie and Wendy Gillespie contributed to the collaboration, as did University of Minnesota professor of History, Ann Waltner. The performance combined historical readings with early music from both sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe and China, along with new compositions by Oberlin/Juilliard-trained now-New-York-based composer Huang Ruo, commissioned for the Sacabuche! project.

T he multimedia performance reanimates the seminal political and cultural exchange between Italian Jesuits and Chinese literati in 16th/17th-century China and unifies (1) Italian music of Ricci’s Italy performed on period instruments, (2) Chinese music of Ricci’s China performed on traditional Chinese instruments, (3) Huang Ruo’s new music, (4) dramatic readings, and (5) historical imagery, including a projected digitized version of Ricci’s map (an old original, James Ford Bell Library, U of M) Chinese paintings and calligraphy and other artworks.
  • Linda Pearse, artistic director & sackbut
  • Ann Waltner, co-director, speaker, author of program notes/script
  • Qin Fang, speaker
  • Yang Yi, guzheng
  • Carrie Tsujui Chin, sheng
  • Eunji Lee, piano and organ
  • Sarah Barbash-Riley, Ray Horton & François Godère, sackbut
  • Martie Perry & Janelle Davis, Baroque violin
  • Wendy Gillespie, viola da gamba
  • Elise Figa, soprano
  • Andrew Rader, countertenor
  • Benjamin Geier, tenor
  • Huang Ruo, composer
  • Cathy Barbash, producer
T he thoughtful selection of 16th-Century Chinese imagery alternating with Italian Baroque Catholic Church imagery was accompanied by short descriptive and poetical Chinese and English texts read by Qin Fang and by Ann Waltner, respectively, interleaved with the Chinese and Italian Baroque music. The pace and the variety of sonic textures were really exciting—informing those of us who do not know very much about Chinese or Jesuit history; capturing and holding our interest throughout; and inspiring our expanding wonder about what the decades-long contact that Fr. Ricci and his Chinese hosts had with each other really entailed.

H uang Ruo’s “Fisherman’s Sonnet” is patterned after kun opera but includes a number of exotic orchestrations of Chinese and western instruments that have probably never been heard playing together before (sackbuts! viola da gamba! Baroque organ! with sheng and guzheng!).

C arrie Tsujui Chin’s sheng playing and Yang Yi’s guzheng were masterful and incisive—at times forcefully and at other times poignantly and delicately contrasting with the rest of the ensemble’s Baroque Italian harmonies.
  • Huang Ruo – Fisherman’s Sonnet
  • A. Gabrieli – Benedictus Dominus Deus Sabaoth
  • A. Gabrieli – Ricercar
  • A. Gabrieli – Alla Battaglia
  • Anon. – Tianfeng huanpei (Jade Pendants of the Immortals)
  • G. Palestrina – Quan pulchri Sunt
  • G. Nanino – Amor m’ha posto; I pensier so saette
  • G. Palestrina – Nigra sum, sed formosa
  • Bartolomeo de Selma – Vestiva i colli
  • G. Palestrina – Vestiva i colli
  • Anon. – Gaoshan liushui (Lofty Mountains and Rolling Waters)
  • A. Gabrieli – Ricercar arioso
  • G. Palestrina – Surgam et circuibo civitatem
  • Huang Ruo – My Promises are Above
Qin Fang, IU Jacobs School of MusicT he readings were graceful and passionately delivered. Some of the readings are excerpts from Ricci’s diaries and letters—poetical in their own way and manifesting not so much the worldview of a missionary of the Roman Catholic Church as the personal and good-hearted expressions of a human being who is deeply and continually interested in other people and how they live, continually interested in learning, and in Life. Over his 30+ years in China, Ricci was fluent in writing and speaking Chinese and came to be highly regarded by the local Chinese scholars with whom he came into contact.

R   icci [Li Xitai] … there is not a single one of our books that he has not read… In a noisy gathering of several dozen people with everybody speaking at once, the arguments he is following do not disturb him at all… [Other people] err through an excess of either inflexibility or compliancy… they are all inferior to him.”
  — Li Zhi, letter to a friend regarding Ricci, 1600.
I f one totes up the durations of the various segments of the performance, the Chinese texts and music occupy considerably less time than the Baroque western music and Ricci texts. This is, after all, a production about Ricci and his activity and travels and his map. But the Chinese material is not merely ‘context’ or ‘backdrop’ for the Ricci saga; it is aesthetically and expressively as strong as the rest. The guzheng and sheng music is, if anything, revealing of a greater depth of existential reflection and contemplation on the part of the Chinese—of a great intellectual openness and spiritual preparedness to receive whatever insights a new experience [with Ricci, or with others] might offer—contrasted with the still-transcendent-but-more-constrained conceptions of Gabrieli or Palestrina. From the performance, we get the strong message that the illustrious Chinese Ricci encountered and whose writings survive were extraordinary human beings, every bit as much as Ricci was extraordinary.

T here are, naturally, other, less sanguine perspectives on Ricci and his accomplishments (see some of the books linked below). Indeed, some of Huang Ruo’s music conveys the diversity of Chinese opinion about the Jesuit(s) in their midst. Ricci’s chronic reluctance to forthrightly state what his or the Church’s purposes and intentions were in China evidently wore thin at times—graciousness has its limits, and there has to be an acceptable bilateral flow of value, or convincing and ongoing prospects of future value flow, for the relationship/exchange/intrusion to be sustainable. Huang Ruo’s music and the ensemble’s playing provide a balanced and empathetic, speculative account of this cross-cultural give-and-take. This is not surface-level alternating now-Chinese-now-Western-sacred-music collage or ‘documentary’; instead, the dramatic tension of the work derives from the fact that the sequence of compositions does recreate this diversity, this give-and-take, complete with the politics and misapprehensions in it. Not inscrutable! Quite the opposite.

M any thanks to the IU and U of M for producing and performing this beautiful and exciting work! International Relations par excellence!

Sacabuche, IU Jacobs School of MusicCathedral Church of St. Paul Boston


17 June 2011

Minimalism/Designing Simplicity: Jordi Savall’s Celtic Viol

Savall, O’Dette, Shanahan S hort motifs predominate... any feeling of meter is, basically, ‘local’. The majority of sections are only 8 bars long, with strong downbeat emphasis. Each section/variation offers new and different kinds of transparency, some more arpeggiated, some less so. The music may be Irish and Scottish in origin, but through this 2-hour recital I am drawn more than anything toward comparisons with Indian ragas—evolutions of a series of waves progressing over the ocean’s surface for hundreds of miles.

C omparisons with other kinds of minimalist music, a la La Monte Young, Reich, Nyman, Riley, and others seem apt as well.


    [50-sec clip, Jordi Savall, ‘Macpherson’s Lament’; 2011, 1.4MB MP3]

I n Savall’s conception of the Scottish folk tune ‘MacPherson’s Lament’, the prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully. [The prisoner condemned to die requested the privilege to play one last tune, and this is the tune that he performed. Many fast trills, initiated on downbeat and then tapering—little symbolisms of trembling, waning life. After finishing the last note, the prisoner smashed the fiddle: the fiddle would die with him, a second homicide, violating the personhood of the instrument and compounding whatever other crimes MacPherson may have committed.]

T here are surely many musicians who have continued playing up to within a short while before their deaths, usually from cancer or other chronic illness. Consider the gesture as a form of palliative self-care. This is terminal abjection. The music is not meant to be salvific or curative, like a Tarantella! The musician knows full-well that s/he is about to die, and that there will be no reprieve, no escaping this fate. If anything, we hear a brave, dignified aesthetic of fast-approaching doom. [Did Shackleton’s Expedition have amateur musicians abord, I wonder? If so, what did they play toward The End?] All told, the repertoire of those whose lives are ended by the State must be a very small and specialized one. Savall’s performance suggests that jewish musicians of the Theresien (Terezin) Holocaust prison camp do not have a world monopoly on this literature. But I digress.

T he feature of the Jordi Savall-Paul O’Dette-Shane Shanahan performance last night that most fascinated me was the minimalism of it—and how this music (which is ordinarily performed in a freewheeling, raucous manner—at noisy dances with liberal imbibing, lots of stomping and shouting and carrying-on) resembles error-correcting codes in communications and software. The intermittent loss of phase-lock (due to signal attenuation, or multi-path reflections and other interference, or fluctuating changes in signal-to-noise ratio in the communications channel) in ballads and dance music is rapidly detected, the parts (treble viol in Jordi’s lap; Paul’s cittern/lute; Shanahan’s bodhran) are de-skewed, and phase-lock is recaptured, in large part due to the structure of these low-entropy framing “packets”, these 8-bar phrases.

H ave a look at Prof. Hartmut Obendorf’s recent computer science book (link below) to see what I mean.

I  wish that Paul O’Dette and Shane Shanahan had had more substantial parts to play during the Celtic Viol concert last night, parts more illustrative of their expressiveness and musicianship. But despite their relegation to low-key ‘accompaniment’ roles, O’Dette and Shanahan seemed to enjoy themselves a great deal on-stage. Accompanists manifest a unique dignity arising from modesty, nurturing, and support—another species of minimalism, I suppose, providing the ‘canvas’ for the soloist’s artistic vision. It was all pretty cool.

Savall, O’Dette, Shanahan