Tintinnabuli

Tintinnabuli

From Merriam-Webster dictionary:

tintinnabulation:  the sound of ringing bells

I didn’t really intend on having a summer sabbatical from blogging, but that is how it seems to have turned out.  On the positive side, I did take the time to build a lot of stuff, including a large L-shaped desk from where I can write lots of things to put on this blog.


The first score that I reviewed while listening to music at my new workstation was the Symphony No. 4, “Los Angeles”,  by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.  The work was composed in 2008, and received its premiere in January of 2009.  I’ll bet that even if you have never heard the name Arvo Pärt before today, you can guess which city’s Philharmonic Orchestra performed the work at that concert.  Today the ink is hardly even dry on the score, at a mere 8 years since its creation, especially compared to some of the works which are on orchestra concert programs.  The work was a joint commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, its conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Canberra International Music Festival, and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.  It is the association with Los Angeles, the city of Angels, that the composer made significant.  Pärt uses an ancient Russian Orthodox canon called “The Canon of the Guardian Angel” as a foundation for the work.

Arvo

Arvo Pärt

The piece stands out to me in a couple of different ways.  First, it is an actual 21st century symphony composed by a living composer, which should garner our attention.  Contemporary works should speak to us deeper than any other, as they are a reflection of the times we live in.  The key word in that last sentence is “should”, as the sad truth of the 20th century in “classical” music is that all too often the composer didn’t seem to care if anyone listened.  In many cases, no one did, and orchestras went on happily playing old warhorses that were comfortable for audiences to hear. Second, it is the first symphony that Pärt had composed in 37 long years.  He had mainly been working with small vocal ensembles and choruses.  His previous symphony, his Third, was a transitional work written in 1971.  There is a definite change of style in the compositions of Mr. Pärt.  After a period of intense study of ancient music and chant, he began composing in a radically different style he developed and called “Tintinnabuli”.  Most of his compositions since 1977, and many of his most well-known works, are written in this style.  To the best of my knowledge, Symphony 4 is one of the few large-scale instrumental works he has written in this style.

A quote from Wikipedia is as good of a concise description of the style as any I have seen:

“Tintinnabuli (singular. tintinnabulum; from the Latin tintinnabulum, “a bell”) is a compositional style created by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, introduced in his Für Alina (1976), and used again in Spiegel im Spiegel (1978). This simple style was influenced by the composer’s mystical experiences with chant music. Musically, Pärt’s tintinnabular music is characterized by two types of voice, the first of which (dubbed the “tintinnabular voice”) arpeggiates the tonic triad, and the second of which moves diatonically in stepwise motion. The works often have a slow and meditative tempo, and a minimalist approach to both notation and performance. Pärt’s compositional approach has expanded somewhat in the years since 1970, but the overall effect remains largely the same.”

The overall effect is one of stillness, with motion that is only glacial in speed.  There are slight tensions in the music, but they always resolve, small dissonances that move to a consonance.  This is music of great subtlety, slowly building peaks and warm waves of sound.  I generally do not promote the “warm bath” approach to listening, just letting the music wash over you like warm water in the bath, but that seems to be the best way to experience the Symphony No. 4.  The music is meditative and hypnotic, slowly unfolding and enveloping the listener.

Arvo Pärt is so original in his creations that there is almost nothing to compare his music to.  Perhaps a selection of contrasting music would be the most revealing.  Here is the opening track to the John Coltrane album “Sun Ship”, recorded in 1965 and posthumously released.  It is one of the last recording of the “classic” Coltrane quartet with Elvin Jones on Drums, McCoy Tyner on piano and Jimmy Garrison on bass.  At this point in his life, Coltrane was as deeply spiritual man as has ever put shoe to concrete.  Equally as spiritual and interested in the mystical as Arvo Pärt, but the frenetic, harsh, screeching sounds of this track is the complete opposite of the sound of our Estonian friend.

 John Coltrane – Sun Ship

(As an aside, I once had a close friend and teacher that would use this track to go into electronic stores and test out different speakers.  Imagine the reaction of unsuspecting shoppers who had this sound invading their shopping experience on a random Tuesday evening!)

The spirituality of the Pärt Symphony No. 4 is the other end of the spectrum.  It is scored for string orchestra, harp, timpani, and percussion, written in three slow movements that last a total of about 39 minutes in performance.  Where Coltrane tries to play the entire overtone series at once, Pärt lives in the area of fourths, fifths and triads.  Where Coltrane is a jet engine, the music of Pärt is floating on air.  Where “Sun Ship” is cathartic, the Pärt Symphony has been described as a mournful, introspective lament (although I don’t necessarily consider sorrow to be the major emotional expression of the work).  Two completely different modes of expression from two equally spiritual men.  I find both important to me.

Arvo Pärt,  Symphony No. 4, “Los Angeles”

 

 

Let The Music Live

Let The Music Live

The death of Prince seems to have affected me hard.  I took a detour into building picnic tables.  The joy of building something in wood is that you have something tangible at the end of your project.  If it is straight and square and strong, everyone can see it.  No one can take that away from you.  It has been nice to have a tangible, physical representation of the effort you have put in building something.  Some of the things I have built can be seen at Soulcraft Woodworking.

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Einojuhani Rautavaara

Ironically, another death of a great musician has motivated me to write about music again.  Einojuhani Rautavaara died on 27 July, 2016.  I had never heard of Mr. Rautavaara until I saw the announcement of his passing on the NPR app on my phone.  Maybe I have been living under a rock, but I consider myself a person who listens to a lot of classical music, and a great deal of classical music from composers living in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  I am just the sort of sorry bloke who would listen to the compositions of Mr. Rautavarra.  It wasn’t until he died that I followed his name to Spotify and found his Symphony No. 7, named the Angel of Light.

From the NPR website I read:

Einojuhani Rautavaara, often hailed as Finland’s finest composer since Jean Sibelius, has died at age 87. The Associated Press reports that Rautavaara died Wednesday in Helsinki after complications from hip surgery.

and also

The “Angel of Light” symphony was about angels, but Vänskä recalled the composer explaining, “We have to remember that there are not only white angels but there are black angels too,” and tacking on an evil little cackle. The symphony was commissioned by the Bloomington Symphony Orchestra and premiered in 1995. Four years later Rautavaara fulfilled another American commission, composing his Eighth Symphony for the centenary of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Here is the first movement of the Symphony No. 7, “Angel of Light”

I was simply blow away when I listened to the first movement of this symphony.  I have completely missed the Rautavaara boat.  I am ashamed that I haven’t heard his music before now.  I am just the sort of person who would buy the recording of his music.  My local hometown orchestra has released the complete Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Brahms symphonies in the last few years, but here I am wallowing in the fact that I had not even heard of Mr. Rautavaara until he died.  I was prepared to be outraged, but it seems that the music of Mr. Rautavaara is pretty well recorded.  Here is the link to a recording of all eight of his symphonies on Spotify.

Rautavaara: The 8 Symphonies

I would love to offer a detailed introduction to the works of Einojuhani Rautavaara, but I have only just learned how to spell his name.  If you are like me, and have never heard his music before, I implore you to search out his compositions and take a listen.  I am immersing myself in the recordings I can find.  As I understand at the moment, Symphony No. 7 and No. 8 are pretty popular as well as his Cantus Arcticus, Op. 61 subtitled Concerto for Birds and Orchestra.

I have quite a few ideas to write about Romantic era music, so stay tuned.

 

Philip Glass, Waiting for the Barbarians

Philip Glass, Waiting for the Barbarians

I suppose I should say upfront, that I may not be the best person to introduce you to the music of Philip Glass.  I am in no way an expert on music of the minimalist composers.  I normally would say that Philip Glass is not “really my thing”.  I am however, a huge fan of the J. M. Coetzee novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, and when I found a recording of an opera based on the book I had to take a listen.  A discussion of the novel can be found on my new blog, Great Books of Old Stream.   As an opera, Mr. Glass has created a work with very accessible and listenable music.  There is an added bonus for my ears, which is the text is sung in English, a language I actually speak!  After listening to hours and hours of opera in languages I don’t understand very well, and have to follow subtitles or libretti to comprehend, an opera in English is refreshing.  

The_Thin_Blue_Line_posterSome of my favorite music composed by Philip Glass is the film music for a 1988 documentary film, The Thin Blue Line. The film is by Errol Morris about a man named Randall Adams who was convicted for a murder he did not commit.  It is a powerful film, and in some ways contributed to Mr. Adams’ release from prison about a year later.  I always thought the music by Glass was wonderful background music for the film.  Now my composition teacher would have considered that a left-handed compliment.  He would point out that music that is appropriate for the background often cannot hold enough interest to stand on its own, in fact should stay in the background and not draw attention away from the film subject.  In any case, I think the soundtrack for The Thin Blue Line works brilliantly.  Mr. Glass has also put his music to dramatic uses in composing a large number of operas and over a dozen other film scores.

Waiting CDThe opera, Waiting for the Barbarians  was commissioned by the Theatre Erfurt in Germany, where it was premiered in September of 2005.  The Coetzee novel was made into a libretto by Christopher Hampton, and the music composed by Philip Glass.  The 2008 recording that is available on Orange Mountain Music is a live performance conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.  I so deeply wish that there was a video recording available, or that I could see a live production.  In addition to the sung music, there is a prelude and five different “dreamscape” episodes that happen in the opera.  I know that there is a great deal of wordless action happening on the stage during these dreamscapes, action that tells much of the story of the novel, but is lost in an audio recording.  I am familiar enough with the novel to fill in the blanks, but if you are not familiar with the novel’s plot, sadly, the audio recording may not give the full experience.

The Synopsis from the liner notes reads like this:

“Waiting for the Barbarians” is a harrowing allegory of the war between oppressors and the oppressed.  The protagonist is a loyal civil servant who conscientiously runs the affairs of a tiny frontier garrison town, ignoring the threat of impending war with the “barbarians”, a neighboring tribe of nomads.  But with the arrival of a special unit of the Civil Guard spreading the rumor that the barbarians are preparing to attack, he becomes witness to the cruel and illegal treatment of the prisoners of war.  Torture is used to obtain confessions from the barbarian prisoners, thus “proving” the necessity of the planned campaign against the tribe.

Jolted into sympathy for the victims, the old man decides to take a stand.  He attempts to maintain a final shred of decency and dignity by bringing home a barbarian girl, crippled by torture and nearly blind, and subsequently returning her to her people – an act of individual amends.  This dangerous, exhausting expedition brands him forever as a traitor, after which he himself becomes a victim of public humiliation and torture.”

Philip Glass provides these notes to accompany the recording:

“John Coetzee, the South African writer and Nobel Prize Winner for Literature 2003, first published “Waiting for the Barbarians” in 1980.  I contacted John Coetzee about adapting his book into an opera back in 1991 and made my first treatment of the opera that same year.  I’d begun to do this kind of social/political opera in 1979 with Satyagraha, an opera that takes place in South Africa, concerning the life of Gandhi and the possibility of social change through nonviolence.

My aim then, as it is now, was to preserve Coetzee’s cold allegorical approach while dramatizing the classic themes of confrontation, crisis and redemption so the audience itself is left weighing the meaning of good and evil in their own lives.  To reduce the opera to a single historical circumstance or a particular political regime misses the point.  That the opera can become an occasion for dialogue about political crisis illustrates the power of art to turn our attention toward the human dimension of history.”

[I think Glass meant to say the opera Satyagraha takes place in India, but this is how the liner notes read.]
I am truly saddened that the story of the opera, and the allegory in the novel, are as current today as when they were written.  I think they carry an important message, a warning that should be observed, and raise plenty of questions that should be carefully considered.  I hope that the opera receives more performances and productions in other cities.  For a discussion of the novel, I would humbly ask you to visit Great Books of Old Stream, a new project of mine.  Most importantly, go out and read the novel itself.  It is shocking how current the book is today, 36 years after it was first published.  

Dreamscape No. 3, Waiting for the Barbarians, Philip Glass