Symphonic Island-Hopping: Kiwi Edition

For the last entry I listened to Spanish composer Tomás Marco’s Symphony No. 5, inspired by (and with individual movements named after) the Canary Islands. So I couldn’t resist when I came across a CD of Christopher Blake’s music with a featured work called Symphony – The Islands. 31-PBmncQEL.jpgBlake (b. 1949) is a dyed-in-the-wool Kiwi: born in Christchurch, educated at Canterbury University, and now Chief Executive of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. And the “islands” referenced in the title of his 1996 symphony are those that comprise his own country, which makes Blake’s symphony notably different from Marco’s. Blake’s symphony is about home.

But Symphony – The Islands is about something else as well. Cast in three movements, it takes its title and a good deal of inspiration from three sonnets by New Zealand poet Charles Brasch (1909-73). md22536625228.jpgThe poems are printed in full in the liner notes, and emblazoned across the album art as an epigraph is this quote from the second of them, from which Blake says the music takes its “mood of restlessness”: “Always, in these islands, meeting and parting/Shake us, making tremulous the salt-rimmed air.”

Nexus entry.

I can’t stop thinking about Debussy’s “sea symphony,” La mer (1905), and not because Blake’s work sounds anything like it. In fact, Symphony – The Islands doesn’t remind me of the sound of Debussy or of early twentieth-century French music at all. That, though, is almost the point. Debussy is writing a sea symphony from the perspective of the water; Blake is writing an island symphony from the perspective of the land. Water is present in both, but Blake gives the motion, the “restlessness” of water, something substantial to push against. Another obvious comparison is Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony (1909), which shares with Blake’s piece a grounding in poetry that uses seascapes as a kind of mechanism for the visionary. But Blake doesn’t sound much like Vaughan Williams either, and he sounds even less like the Vaughan Williams of A Sea Symphony, only most obviously because Blake’s isn’t a choral symphony.

I’m stepping up to the ledge of an entire category of environmental music here, as well as a rich cache of ecomusicology. 9781783270620_2.jpgThe recent thought-provoking volume The Sea in the British Musical Imagination, edited by Eric Saylor and Christopher Scheer, leaps to mind, as does an excellent paper given by Karen Olson (at the most recent AMS conference in Rochester) on two pieces by Peter Maxwell Davies tied to “his” islands, the Orkneys. What I mean to say is that the musical trope-iverse of “island music” and “sea music” inevitably intersect, but they’re not the same. Teasing out the differences at a larger level would be, I imagine, a worthy pursuit.

But to the music at hand. . .

Blake’s first movement, “Recitative and Appassionata,” opens with an almost imperceptible throbbing that slowly grows—it really seems as if we are getting closer to it. When the cello recitative begins, it feels as if an entirely different character has been introduced or, rather, that a character has been introduced. “Recitative,” after all, means that a character is singing, and since Blake has told us all about the centrality of Brasch’s poetry to his symphonic conception, the instrumental recitative stands in for the poetic voice, and by extension for our human voice. Then what was that growing throbbing? I think Blake is asking his listener to perceive more in it than accompaniment. Its relative stasis, its rhythmic permanence suggests the natural world of rocks and waves, the land and sea against which the poet writes the story of his own recitative-like perception.

This kind of conceptual polyphony between the human and the environmental is, I think, one of the most compelling aspects of Symphony – The Islands. It occurs again in the slow second movement, “Gongs, Echoes and Chants,” where an opening subterranean pedal is answered by shimmering ascents. In the words of Brasch’s middle sonnet, “Divided and perplexed the sea is waiting,/Birds and fishes visit us and disappear.” And then, the human element appears. Blake calls it a “chant” in his movement title, but it sounds more like a hymn played out in atmospheric strings. I hear in it an echo of the end of the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. MarbledGodwit.jpgWhen a descending trumpet figure cuts through the hymn texture, at first it feels like a response to Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question, in which the strings’ slow-moving hymn is cut through by the questioning trumpet. But there’s more to Blake’s trumpet than a dissonant question; as other instruments take up the figure, it reveals itself not as a human but as avian. To wit, the call of the godwit, as Brasch’s poem verifies: “from their haunted bay/The godwits vanish toward another summer.” And now we arrive at the doorstep of Messiaen, who uses birdsong to suggest the voice of the divine. By the end of the movement Blake synthesizes some of these varying elements—the primal throbbing of natural forces, the shimmering ascents of fishes and birds, the hymning of humanity—but the synthesis doesn’t achieve apotheosis. Instead, and as Brasch writes, “None knows where he will lie down at night.”

This sentiment is carried over into the third movement, “And None Knows. . .,” which gives much of its bulk to “rapid string and wind figurations” and “an energetic fast dance” before an extensive coda that returns to the stasis of the natural world and the “human voices” of earlier movements. The coda is calculatedly inconclusive, the relationship between the natural world and human presence unclear, the future of that pact unknown. Or, as Brasch’s third sonnet has it, “The stones are bare for us to write upon.”

Nexus exit.

The CD is rounded out with three “tone poems,” each about ten minutes, which Blake explains in the liner notes “are conceived as a group and share similarities in style, sentiment, and technique.” Two are elegiac—We All Fall Down (1996), an “extended threnody. . .which remembers the children of the wars of our time,” and Echelles de Glace (1992), commissioned by the Wellington Youth Orchestra in memory of their former member David Heymann, who died while climbing the Matterhorn. The first belongs to a growing body of late twentieth-century works in memoriam for which Henryk Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976) is perhaps an ultimate stylistic model. R-898934-1241102979.jpeg.jpgThe second, while fulfilling its memorial function admirably, also references a special kind of twentieth-century orchestral writing that I think owes a considerable debt to nature documentaries. The final work on the album is also the most recent: The Furnace of Pihanga (1999), inspired by a Maori story about the contest of mountain gods “for the love of the beautiful Pihanga.” There’s a sensitive timbral imagination on display here, and it’s a pleasure to hear Blake tell the story described in his liner notes through the orchestral medium.

When a Symphony is Like an Archipelago: Marco’s Symphony No. 5

The symphony is dead. Long live the symphony.

Last night I had the local classical radio station on in the car, and they started playing Brahms’s Second Symphony. Brahms is not my ¡FaVoRiTe! symphonist, and the Second isn’t my ¡FaVoRiTe! Brahms symphony, and yet. . . And yet. . .

I love this form. I love the experience of listening to a symphony. Live. On recording. I love talking about them, reading about them, thinking about them. I love studying scores of them, and, as a composer, from time to time I repress the urge to write one. Or at least to start writing one. y450-293.jpgI happen to think—and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who does—that the symphony is one of the ¡gReAt IdEaS oF hUmAnKiNd!, in the way that Peter Watson places the invention of opera between chapters called “Capitalism, Humanism, Individualism” and “The Mental Horizon of Christopher Columbus.” <1> And so hearing Brahms Second at the end of a long day was my own little piece of heaven.

For the last entry two entries I’ve been listening to “island music”: the first, steel band music from Trinidad; the second, works by Tania León that are profoundly informed by Cuban culture. This week I encountered two symphonies that were new for me: Spanish composer Tomás Marco’s Symphony No. 4 “Espacio Quebrado” and Symphony No. 5 “Modelos de Universo.” But the one I found most fascinating is also “island music,” in a sense.

Nexus entry.

MI0001105480.jpgMarco’s Fifth Symphony has seven movements, each of which is named after one of the seven main Canary Islands: I. Achinech (Tenerife), II. Ferro (Hierro), III. Avaria (La Palma), IV. Maxorata (Fuerteventura), V. Tyteroygatra (Lanzarote), VI. Amilgua (Gomera), VII. Tamarán (Gran Canaria). (As an aside, I’ll admit that one of the reasons I was drawn to the piece is because in the last few years I’ve read a fair amount about the connection between San Antonio and the Canary Islands.)

Things get a bit more complicated here. In extensive program notes, Marco (b. 1942) explains that the symphony was commissioned by the Festival of the Canaries and that he wanted, therefore, to create an homage to the islands, which he claims to know “inside out (better than the natives, I expect),” as a kind of testament “to their progressive destruction.” Despite the titling of movements, though, the composer had “no desire to commit the tactlessness of appropriating Canarian folklore. . .an easy, opportunist way out, as well as being a sort of profanity, that would have harmed both the folklore and the symphony itself.”

Instead, Marco wanted to create a “universal work for the Canaries that would carry their name across the wide world every time it was performed.” <2> (This makes me think of the Dalai Lama approving the recording and distribution of Tibetan Buddhist rituals with the idea that every time one pressed play, the prayer was renewed, like a disembodied prayer wheel.) And how does a composer make a symphony universal, other than by omitting any direct reference to music and folklore of the Canary Isalnds? Marco attempts this by tying his work to others in the symphonic tradition. He references the famous opening motive from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the opening of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra repeatedly. Arguably, that’s a different kind of opportunism; at the very least, it’s the ¡MoSt ObViOuS wAy! of involving an audience in a conversation about the music, through the music.

Marco also explains that there are “hidden references to various well-known Fifth Symphonies” elsewhere, especially in the transitions. But three other “non-Fifth” symphonies occur to me as models of Marco’s symphonic universe. One is Mahler’s Third, a six-movement work with titles that most often point to the natural world as inspiration. Another is Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Sinfonie (1948), with which Marco’s Fifth Symphony shares an unorthodox number of movements, many featuring titles that point to a personal cache of complicated referents. A third is Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia (1969), the symphony after symphonies have died, which famously uses the scherzo from Mahler’s Second (1894) as a “vessel” into which many text and musical quotations are poured.

Berio’s scherzo movement, with its apparently self-defeating environment of hyper-quotation, might seem the most apt comparison, especially when Marco writes something like, “Once creative innocence has been irrevocably lost, one has no choice but to be ironic about one’s own creation.” MV5BMmNlYzRiNDctZWNhMi00MzI4LThkZTctMTUzMmZkMmFmNThmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzkwMjQ5NzM@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_.jpgIn other words, it’s difficult to hear Also sprach, especially after 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Beethoven’s Fifth and not roll your eyes. But when ironic experience is repeated so often, it loses its ironic edge, becomes instead simply an environment. That environment is a palimpsest, endlessly written over, just as Marco’s movement titles have traditional island names and parenthetical “colonized” names, just as the symphony as a genre is a model that is written over again and again. What is left is a place of depth, a place where unfathomable things have happened and are recovered only partially, through a veil of imperfect memory, Marco Polo repeatedly trying to describe the glories of Venice for a mesmerized Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

Nexus exit.

Ultimately, in his Fifth Symphony Marco claims to have given the listener “seven formal models,” inspired by various theories of the universe, “translated into seven abstract and exclusively music movements,” the “techniques of construction” for which the composer does “not want to tire the reader by describing.” No matter. On the island of symphonies, there’s enough to hear without all that.

References

<1> Peter Watson, Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud (HarperCollins, 2005).

<2> Tomás Marco, Sinfonia No. 5 “Modelos de Universo ‘88/89”; Sinfonia No. 4 “Espacio Quebrado ’87,liner notes by Harry Halbreich with program notes by Tomás Marco Indigéna, aurophon AU 31812, 1991, compact disc.

Placing Tania León, Indígena of the In-Between

For the last entry I listened to an album with origins in Carnival on Trinidad: steel band music, preserved for posterity (thanks, Nonesuch!) as it was in the mid-1960s. No performers are mentioned by name on the album; it’s just The Westland Steel Band, so that the listener is encouraged to conceive of “music as culture” instead of as an account of the intersection of the complex lives of complex individuals.

The album I listened to this week—Indígena, featuring music by Tania León (b. 1943)—also has a connection to Carnival in the Caribbean, this time in Cuba. 515J6W88JEL.jpgBut perhaps it’s better to read the composer’s explanation of the work’s background: “Growing up in Cuba was a kaleidoscopic experience with sound. . .You have all of these revelers in the back of my home, preparing themselves for the Carnival. Even when I was actually trying to play Chopin or Tchaikovsky or, you know, I mean, Czerny, they would parade in front of the house, I would stop playing the piano, go, see the revels pass by, and when they pass by, we all dance, you know. And then, when they were gone, everybody went back to their chores. I went back to the piano; I continue practicing. . .Of course, upon my return [to Cuba, years later], I realize that the revelers were not there anymore, and these are just my memories.” [1]

In January 2018 there are lots of places one can go to read about Tania León’s life and career: her own website, Grove, several dissertations and scholarly articles. But here are three pieces of information, culled from those sources, to provide a bit of context or to send you looking for more. The first is reported almost every time León is introduced in print. She claims five distinct sources of heritage: French, Spanish, Chinese, African, and Cuban. She “take[s] pride” in each and “represent[s] all of them.” [2] Second, she was a founding member of Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem and served as accompanist, and later music director, resident composer, and conductor of its orchestra. Third, León is currently working on a new opera—with libretto by Thulani Davis aided by “historical research” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—called Little Rock Nine, about those extraordinary black students who began attending Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957. [3]

What do we take from these three pieces of information? Something about race or ethnic identity? Something about musical influences? Something about the production of contemporary concert music in late-20th-/early-21st-century America? If you read any interviews with or writings about León, it quickly becomes apparent that she resists attempts to make her into the voice of a particular ethnicity (and/or gender). Marc Gidal discusses this at length in a 2010 article for Latin American Music Review, ultimately arguing that Homi Bhabha’s phrase vernacular cosmopolitanism is a useful concept for understanding composers such as León, finding in it a way “to join contradictory notions of local specificity and universal enlightenment.” [4]

Local specificity. Such as? Well, for example, in Indígena (from which the album takes its name), after a spiky and dissonant, almost Varèse-like opening, León “conjures up a comparsa, the group of revelers that roams the streets during Carnival season.” A solo trumpet even quotes an “authentic comparsa melody.” [5] This is local knowledge. And universal enlightenment? This is achieved through the expert use of orchestra—a sign for universalism, however problematic—with ample evidence of mastery of the musical modernist’s toolbox. Read against the interview with León quoted above, Indígena becomes more than a juxtaposition of distinct cultures, coming together for a multicultural extravaganza. A new creature is made, growing from exile and loss, memory and a wealth of contemporary experience. The title of León’s piece, Indígena, is not an answer, but a question. She is not saying, “Listen to my indigenous, Cuban authenticity in the context of a universalizing orchestral treatment.” Instead, she is asking us to consider what in-between place she is an indigene of, from what “cosmopolitan” city-state of the mind she has picked up all these intriguing elements. Those synthesized elements are capable of communicating broadly, in part because of connections they spark with people who recognize the individual elements, in part because her audience includes fellow in-betweeners who also live a synthetic existence. Indígena seems to ask the listener to consider how we all come to create our sense of belonging in this world when we’re made of so many fragments, disconnected from their original context.

Nexus entry.

Having felt myself invited, I journey. When listening to this album of León’s music, so many fragments and elements come to mind from the world of twentieth-century concert music. The second track, Parajota Delaté (1988), which means “For J[oan] from T[ania]” was written for the Da Capo Chamber Players, for which Joan Tower (b. 1938) was longtime pianist. The ensemble—flute, violin, clarinet, cello, piano—is of course the Pierrot ensemble, and the experience of listening to the piece for me was like listening to a telescoped version of Pierrot lunaire (1912), with textural, timbral, and rhythmic ideas pointing to specific songs in Schoenberg’s twenty-one-movement work. 51zrYS4zNmL._SX368_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThe connection is suggested in part because of the episodic nature of Parajota Delaté: a gait is established, then arrested and joined to the next by an interlude, as often in Pierrot. I hear fleeting references to “Enthauptung,” “Serenade,” “O Alter Duft.” Is León suggesting some alternate reading of the Pierrot narrative or exploring the ensemble in a way that playfully interacts with one of the touchstone works of the twentieth century? According to Ellen K. Grolman’s Grove article on Joan Tower, the composer “sometimes offer[s] musical salutes in titles of her works” (e.g., Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, in response to Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man), so there’s also a kind of echo in León pointing to Tower (and, more obliquely, to Schoenberg) through a work for her and her ensemble.

The only solo piano work on the album, Rituál (1987), seems to me to possess a sort of dance logic. The opening—sonorities built from accumulating ascending pitches—is like a body in a crouched position gradually opening up, gaining height and exploring space. A contrapuntal section with jazz-tinged harmonies gives way to a one that K. Robert Schwarz describes as having a “savage, brutal rhythmic power.” [6] That description of a solo piano work inevitably calls to mind Bartók’s Allegro barbaro (1911), though Bartók’s suite Out of Doors (1926) might be a more apt comparison. Then the next work on the album, León’s A la Par (1986), for piano and percussion, just as inevitably descends from Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion (1937). Both A la Par and Bartók’s Sonata are in three movements, with a fast-slow-fast(er) design, and both find ample room for the atmospheric and the kinetic, though of course Bartók’s rhythmic drive draws from a different source. The two works inhabit different timbral universes, too, with Bartók’s score favoring timpani and “old-world” percussion and León’s highlighting “new-world” percussion (e.g., toms, marimba, vibraphone. . .bottles!)

The final work on the album, Batéy (1989), was written with “Dominican-born pianist and composer” Michel Camilo. MI0001119973.jpgIt’s a work of about twenty minutes for six amplified voices and percussion, on a text created by the collaborators in a mixture of Spanish, Yoruban, a Cuban dialect, “nonsense syllables,” and a little English. Sometimes it reminds me of Steve Reich’s Tehillim (1981), another work situated at the fruitful intersection of art music and a distinctive linguistic and spiritual heritage. In Batéy’s third movement, “Rezos” (“Prayers”), composed entirely by León, I hear a debt to Luciano Berio’s choral writing, particularly as found in “O King,” the second movement from Sinfonia (1969). The final word in “Rezos” is the English word “DREAM!” which references the famous speech by Martin Luther King. Why? A batéy is a slave village at a sugar plantation; the text of the piece fittingly centers on labor and oppression, on the one hand (and also weather, which perhaps signifies powerful forces beyond our control), and, on the other, the freedom achieved through ritual, community, and music. Perhaps this collection of ideas suggests parallels with the civil rights movement in the U. S., which in turn anticipates León’s current operatic project, Little Rock Nine.

Nexus exit.

Does all of this make León speak a language of “vernacular cosmopolitanism” as Marc Gidal proposes? I wonder if León would prefer to think of it in terms of inviting her listeners to hear as vernacular cosmopolitans.

[1] American Composers Orchestra, “Composer Portrait: Tania León,” August 2, 2007, accessed December 30, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SpXH149-bBY.

[2] Tania León, Indígena, liner notes by K. Robert Schwarz, CRI eXchange 662, 1994, compact disc.

[3] Carmen Pelaez, “‘The Little Rock Nine’: Composer Tania León Hopes Opera Fosters Important Dialogue,” NBC News, September 25, 2017, accessed December 30, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/little-rock-nine-composer-tania-le-n-hopes-opera-fosters-n803931

[4] Marc Gidal, “Contemporary ‘Latin American’ Composers of Art Music in the United States: Cosmopolitans Navigating Multiculturalism and Universalism,” Latin American Music Review 31, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 2010): 40-78.

[5] León, Indígena, 6.

[6] Ibid, 5.

More to Three Ds than Death: Honegger’s Fifth Symphony

Contributed by Dr. Ken Metz, Professor of Music (University of the Incarnate Word)

51-5xVSwtbL._SY355_.jpgArthur Honegger (1892-1955) suffered a health crisis in 1947 and did not live too many years beyond that, but he had one more symphony in him. Symphony No. 5 (1950) is subtitled “Di tre re,” with re referring to the note D, which ends every movement. Does this D, with its association with Requiem settings, point to death? Probably so, but to my ears this three-movement work (played here by the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Charles Dutoit) also evokes devotion, delight, and defiance, three D-words I’d like to add to describe aspects of the symphony. I hear the first movement as devotion to Honegger’s art and faith. Yes, there is some very sour dissonance in the chorale-like first theme, but the landing places are typically rich extended chords that possess a soaring devotional quality. The climactic trumpet part sounds at once like a plaintive cry to God and a declaration of faith. The second movement is scherzo-like and comparable, in a way, to the third movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, revealing a sense of humor about the human condition. The adagio sections in the movement offer a contrast, perhaps the promise of a soothing afterlife. The third movement is the boldest, and I hear in it a striving for strength, a will to persevere despite any obstacle. I want to cheer the piece on as it raucously unfolds, anchored by assertive brass statements. I don’t feel despair (another D word). I think Honegger knew that music had more to offer and that he had more to leave behind.

Panning for Gold: Hits in and beyond Trinidad

In the last entry I found myself (unavoidably?) making a reference to Beetlejuice (1988), which (unavoidably!) got me thinking about, yes, the score by Danny Elfman (b. 1953), and also the film’s two moments of spirit-possessed dancing, both accompanied by classic Harry Belafonte recordings: “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jump in the Line (Shake, Señora).” maxresdefault.jpgPart of me wants to write this entry on an album by Harry Belafonte (b. 1927): musician, actor, activist. After all, his album Calypso (1956), which opens with that unforgettable “Day-O,” was the first LP to sell a million copies and was #1 on the U. S. charts for 31 weeks. But that’s not the album I pulled from the shelf.

A thorny, troublesome something—an interpretive Demogorgon—lives at the intersection of Caribbean music, spirit possession, and “strangeness” in postwar Euro-American culture. To limit this to the present topic, maybe it goes something like this: The makers of Beetlejuice had seen examples of the Terrifying Dangers of Caribbean Music in movies and TV shows growing up, and the terror thrilled them.

Dr._No_(soundtrack).jpgThink of the use of calypso in the 1962 film Dr. No, the first Bond movie featuring Sean Connery as 007. In the opening sequence, a trio of (Chinese-Jamaican) assassins, feigning blindness, gun down the British agent assigned to the Kingston office in broad daylight and then melt back into the cityscape. Their soundtrack is a calypso rendition of “Three Blind Mice,” realized by Monty Norman (who penned the Bond theme, etc., John Barry, etc., legal action, etc.). This sounds ironic, menacingly so, and given Monty Norman’s fascination with Caribbean music and his work with Jamaican musicians, the composer probably meant it that way. But I’m not so sure that the children who would grow up to make Beetlejuice would have. Here was musical otherness paired with racial otherness, all supporting a delight in violence. What child could ferret out the ambiguity, even with the words of a children’s song there to drive it home in a sort of calypso echo of the slow movement of Mahler’s First Symphony? Instead, there’s the simultaneity of horror at and liberation from conventional mores, precisely the heady mixture characterizing the possessed dance sequences in the Tim Burton film. There’s nothing particularly unusual about this idea: It’s exoticism, simply put. What makes the phenomenon so memorable in Beetlejuice is that exoticism undergoes a kind of emptying of its original foothold in reality because of the disembodied nature of recording and the imprecision of nostalgia for a remembered childhood.

51FB-tmvWBL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThis reminds me of the opening of Simon Winder’s The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond (2006), where the writer recalls seeing the Bond film Live and Let Die at the local cinema as a ten-year-old. He makes himself sick with a rum-and-raisin-flavored candy bar called an Old Jamaican while watching “voodoo worshippers. . .screaming and convulsing” in a “loosely West Indian setting.” Gross. As Winder realizes of his adolescent self. Of course, there is an irony in that Jamaica was the very place that Ian Fleming wrote most of the Bond novels; it was his second home, and he clearly loved being there. And yet. . .empire, colonialism, racism: the ugly, inescapable past that anyone with a conscience must perpetually face down.

And now for something (sort of) completely different. (Nexus entry.)

There’s much to love about Nonesuch Records. Nonesuch commissioned—yes, commissioned—Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon (1967). (That’s enough, isn’t it?) Under the visionary leadership of Teresa Sterne (1927-2000), Nonesuch released recordings by a number of important young composers and also an Explorer Series, featuring music of stunning variety recorded on site around the world. Sterne and her team at Nonesuch in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s seem to have appreciated that, in the spirit of the times, expanding minds meant expanding sonic experience into realms of the unfamiliar.

One record in Nonesuch’s Explorer Series—the one I did pull from the shelf—is The Sound of the Sun (1967), an album comprised entirely of music for steel band (as in steel pans) played by the Westland Steel Band. A brief essay by Jane Sarnoff on the back cover sketches a history of the steel band, an ensemble born of extraordinary resourceful in the wake of repeated attempts by colonial authority figures to clamp down on aspects of Carnival. Drums in the nineteenth century? Banned. Bamboo sticks thumped on the ground? Banned. Pots and pans, discarded brakes and other metal bits were promising, but then. . . As Sarnoff puts it, “There are countless rumours, calypsos, and stories telling of the One man, the thousand One men who first discovered that dents in the tops of steel drums made notes.” She continues delicately, “The large oil industry on the island gave a ready source of basic instruments.” Helen Myers (ethnomusicologist alert!) is less conciliatory in her 2001 article for Grove: “After World War II, bandsmen developed a technique whereby the discarded American 55-gallon oil drums littering the island could be fashioned into a tuned idiophone whose tempered steel extended the range of musical versatility of their groups.” So Americans leave massive amounts of toxic waste on an island in the Caribbean, wash their hands of it, and the people of Trinidad give the world the steel band.

R-1662607-1383419160-6661.jpeg.jpgThe gift of The Sound of the Sun, though, is that it reveals an ensemble in transition. Not too long ago someone shared with me a YouTube video of a steel band playing the opening of Rite of Spring. It was meant to impress, and it did, as if to say, “Anything an orchestra on a concert stage can do, we can do.” That claim could not have been made when the Nonesuch record was made. In 1967, steel bands were closer to their origin as the creative expression of urban youth seeking music to articulate movement (march, dance) during Carnival. That gives the twelve tracks on The Sound of the Sun a certain self-similarity: a walking pace, an unvarying ensemble of ping pong, guitar pan, cello pan, boom, and shak-shak. (By the time Myers was publishing her Grove article, she explains that this terminology had shifted toward the less colloquial tenor pan for ping pong and bass pan for boom.)

But where variety exists on the album, it fascinates. A track like “High Life” has an unrelenting groove with an isorhythmic figure that reminds me of the sanjuanes described by John Schechter (ethnomusicologist alert!) in his work on Andean music. Compare this with “Maria,” where the tenor pan has all the rhythmic and melodic interest of a solo vocal line, with the ensemble breaking their groove to join the melody for certain hits. This also happens in “Mambo Lake,” the ensemble coordination seeming to beg for paired movement: What would the Westland Steel Band have done if they were playing this on the move?

On this listen I was especially drawn to “Linstead Market,” originally a folk song about a mother who can’t sell enough fruit in the market to feed her children, adapted simply here for the steel band. But the song itself spirals out into the nexus. It is Jamaican in origin and had been printed and recorded many times before the Westland Steel Band gave it a go. For example, the mento band the Wrigglers (sometimes “The Wigglers”) recorded it as a single, blending it with. . .ready?. . .“Day Oh” (“Day-O”), around the same year that Belafonte released his album Calypso. FW06846.jpgLouise Bennett-Coverley (1919-2006) also recorded “Linstead Market” for the 1954 Folkways Records release Jamaican Folk Songs. Bennett, lifelong champion of Jamaican folklore, was the person who introduced Belafonte to “The Banana Boat Song,” though it had been “Hill and Gully Rider” as she knew it. And she recorded “Linstead Market” on at least one other occasion, that time with the Caribbean Serenaders featuring Leslie Hutchinson on trumpet (Melodisc 1139) in what the 78 label describes as a “Jamaican Rhumba.” Steel band, calypso, folksong, mento, rhumba, Jamaica, Trinidad, the U. S.—the fluidity of genre, the quick movement of repertory between islands and across oceans, the surge of popular and ethnomusicological interest—all points to kind of vibrancy, a being on the leading edge of a musical revolution, a postcolonial achievement of voice. The Sound of the Sun is a brightly shining page from that story in motion.

(Nexus exit.)

Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Colin Matthews

It’s probably not surprising that listening to the OST for The Empire Strikes Back (for the last entry) would put me in the mood for Gustav Holst. There’s The Planets, after all, which John Williams has referenced (mined?) in a variety of ways throughout the Star Wars saga.

117042209.jpgBut the record I pulled off the shelf this week was not The Planets, but Holst’s Sāvitri (1908), a stunning one-act opera clocking in at about 30 minutes, with a B-side that I’d never heard: The Dream-City, a ten-song cycle that composer-conductor Colin Matthews arranged and orchestrated from Holst’s Twelve Songs, Op. 48 (1929), on poems by Humbert Wolfe (1885-1940). Matthews’s The Dream-City (1983), like Holst’s Op. 48, is by no means well known, but it’s frequently attractive and occasionally fascinating. Matthews organized the ten Holst songs into three “parts” and, in addition to having orchestrated them “more elaborately, perhaps, than Holst might have allowed himself,” he contributed some “linking material” to weld certain songs together. The third part, for example, connects three songs in one unbroken set: “Rhyme,” “Journey’s End,” and. . .wait for it. . .“Betelgeuse.”

Nexus entry.

MV5BZDdmNjBlYTctNWU0MC00ODQxLWEzNDQtZGY1NmRhYjNmNDczXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQxNzMzNDI@._V1_UY1200_CR87,0,630,1200_AL_.jpgAnother week, another ‘80s movie reference. Behold, I bring you: Beetlejuice (1988). Granted, the weird nightmare landscapes that Michael Keaton’s poltergeist-purveying title character slinks through in Tim Burton’s film are a far cry from the wisps of dreams in Humbert Wolfe’s poems. But something does tie together that bizarre film, Wolfe’s poetry, Holst’s settings, and Matthews’s orchestration: the strangeness of our fantasies about death.

“Rhyme,” jittery and unsettling, is about the power of that particular characteristic of poetry to disrupt the natural order, to jolt us “out of space and time.” “Journey’s End,” written in a sort of faux naïve father-son dialogue, depicts the afterlife as the cold, dark, and silent “room” of a coffin. Holst’s music (and Matthews’s beautiful orchestration) goes much further, revealing the numinous through its arching lyricism.

By placing “Betelgeuse” last in the cycle, Matthews sustains this meditation on an afterlife “out of space and time”: “On Betelgeuse the gold leaves hang in golden aisles for twice a hundred million miles,/and twice a hundred million years/they golden hang and nothing stirs,/on Betelgeuse.” TheMagiciansNephew(1stEd).jpgThis science-fiction-like vision of death—which reminds me of the terrifying frozen world of the White Witch’s home planet in C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew (1955)—becomes a marvel in Matthews’s rendering. He has forged a sonic Betelgeuse in the environment of his orchestration, with sly references to Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” to ground the autumnal quality of the poetry in the musical language of the Romantic orchestral song cycle. In the recording, soprano Patrizia Kwella barely touches consonants and uses light vibrato or straight tone throughout while perfectly placing every pitch, aiding the sense of the strangely beautiful and otherworldly, her voice attaining the quality of an instrument beyond the human frame. (She sounds like a glass harmonica at times!) Perhaps Kwella and Matthews were thinking of the 1968 recording of Holst’s Op. 48 by Peter Pears and Britten, in which Pears attains a similar diction-light placidity? Or perhaps Matthews heard Britten and Pears perform it live, since shortly after the recording was made he became the composer’s assistant.

Nexus exit.

I admit that it’s a bit perverse to have “gone nexus” on the LP’s B side without lavishing attention on Sāvitri, which is, well, a truly wonderful work. How do I love it? Let me count the ways. Or at least briefly mention a few of the things that I love about it.

It is an opera with only three roles—Death, Sāvitri, and her beloved Satyavan—in which Holst gives Death the first word. (Like Wagner, Holst wrote his own librettos, in this case adapting the story from the Sanskrit epic The Mahābhārata.) 518Pw2aGHgL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgDeath sings the opening section alone, without orchestral accompaniment, which might initially suggest Wagner’s strategy at the beginning of Act I of Tristan und Isolde, but in Holst there’s no prelude to set up the emptiness of the opening song. And then, magic! Sāvitri joins Death in an unaccompanied duet and reveals that his song has been running through her mind. So the first character we hear is actually the thought of another character. The stark tension between the two vocal parts seems to prophecy Peter and Ellen’s bitonal duet in Britten’s Peter Grimes, which is similarly unmoored from orchestral accompaniment. Composer-scholar Raymond Head claims that Sāvitri features Holst’s first use of bitonality (“Holst and India (III)” Tempo 166 [September 1988]: 37), and given that Britten acknowledged his debt to Holst’s harmonic thinking, the Sāvitri-Grimes link seems intriguing.

Another favorite moment is the use of women’s chorus to accompany Sāvitri’s song to death (“Welcome, Lord!”), which sounds like the very best of the Anglican choral tradition, and so glosses the Hindu mythology of the story with the resounding strains of a British paradise. If that seems uncomfortably colonial, well. . .how could it not? Holst was inevitably a tenant of his times.

I’m not sure it counts as a “favorite moment,” but I’m also amazed by the conversation (argument, really) that Sāvitri has with Death, over the course of which she essentially tricks him into not taking the life of her Satyavan. The deliberately archaic language of the libretto echoes Wagner, certainly, but I’m more fascinated by the musical logic of this section of the opera. The succession of tempos, the modal shifts, the way the orchestra supports the drama—all suggest the logic of Wagner while remaining satisfyingly Holstian. But it’s more specific than that. I almost feel that this particular collection of tempos and moods comes from something: Tristan and Isolde’s conversation at the end of Act I, perhaps? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but seeking an answer is a quest well worth taking up sometime. Meanwhile. . .

So. Many. Records.

The Yoda Clause: Yoda Claus

It’s Christmas. Time for Star Wars.

star_wars_yoda_ugly_christmas_sweater_front_S22587920U_SUGAR_RED_01__15820.1447108644.jpgJust how deeply the connection between Xmas and the ultimate space opera, exemplified by an ever-growing corpus of Christmas Yoda memes, has embedded itself in the collective consciousness is difficult to say, but it’s clear that Disney grasps it. Of course they trot out a new Star Wars movie every Christmas for those of us who woke up one CRT-blasted, C-3PO-cereal-sated morning to our very own AT-AT. With extra pack of D batteries. They know what we want for Christmas.

If such thoughts make me fret about being predictable, about consumer bingeing, about overthinking memes, it is immensely restorative to sit and listen to the double album of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), always my favorite single film of the franchise. In the last entry, while listening to the final movement of Hanson’s “Romantic” Symphony, I had exclaimed excitedly at the mere hint of mildly crunchy American neo-romantic brass fanfare, “That’s Star Wars!” And now I lay claim to my Xer birthright and treat myself to a pre-Episode VIII session of OST, John Williams-style.

61ikIF+eP1L._SY300_.jpgJohn Williams (b. 1932) gives so generously—too generously, I’m sure many have said—and so the experience of listening to a soundtrack album by him is like discovering a secret cache of fascinating deleted scenes. Of course there are many brilliant cues that appear more or less unscathed in the film. One is the opening of “The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme),” the tune that everyone knows from Star Wars and the one that seems to me most like Wagner, because it both retains its identity in various contexts and suggests multiple powerful referents (the third movement from Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata being the most obvious). Another is the moment when Yoda raises Luke’s X-wing from the swamp on Dagobah, which is given over almost entirely to the music to “narrate.” (Hey, he gives Luke a present—he really is Yoda Claus!)

Another favorite moment is during the chase through the asteroid field, the music for which is so very exhilarating that C-3PO’s scream of terror seems like a natural extension of the climactic brass line. 3341011519_b1981fa824.jpg(How did this little piece of magic happen? Did John Williams hear Anthony Daniels’s scream and think, “Hm, the brass need to do something like that. I’ll write a screaming brass line. C-3PO screams, the brass scream, we all scream. . .for asteroid fields.”) A fraught favorite is the truly beautiful “Love Theme,” which finally gets the orchestral treatment it deserves in the closing scene of the film, as Luke and Leia, his arm around her, stand at the window on the medical frigate, looking out over the sweep of the whole galaxy. Right, so the only time we have the “Love Theme” as we’ve longed for it, it’s for. . .sibling embrace. Granted, they (and we) aren’t supposed to know this yet. But does this use of the “love theme” inject an intentional dose of ambiguity about the Luke/Leia relationship into the saga? Like Harry and Hermione dancing in the tent in The Deathly Hallows? Like Siegmund and Sieglinde in the first act of Die Walküre before the “reveal”? I’m pretty sure that the younger me just heard this moment as the uncomplicated and entirely sufficient love of all things Star Wars. Living in the nexus for a few decades has a way of complicating things.

All the moments just mentioned are easy to hear in the film. But then there are moments that the OST reveals that either didn’t make it into the film or that are obscured in a scene by (possibly) well-meaning foley artists or other sound design wizards. Two that struck me on this listen to the Empire double album were. . .

“Yoda’s Theme.” So this might not have been one of JW’s most impressive creations. It sounds a little like Close Encounters, a little like E.T., so much so that Williams might be accused of extraterrestrial stereotyping. The OST track has at certain moments a surprisingly saccharine quality, and listening to it changes my impression of who Williams thought Yoda was, at least in 1980. Too cloying, too sweet, too easy. The filmmakers knew better, so they cut out the overly sweet bits.

And then there’s “The Battle in the Snow,” which must count as one of the great tableaux in all the Star Wars movies. The emergence of the imperial walkers from the mist is one of those unforgettable filmic images. In the film itself the sound effects people go crazy here, adding all sorts of (arguably appropriate) battle noises. But the OST track reveals some shockingly creative music, much of it buried or absent from the film’s final cut. In the double album’s liner notes, John Williams describes this cue’s “unusual orchestration, calling for five piccolos, five oboes, a battery of eight percussion, two grand pianos, two or three harps, in addition to the normal orchestral complement.” He goes on to explain, “This was necessary in order to achieve a bizarre mechanical, brutal sound for the sequence showing Imperial Walkers, which are frightening inventions, advancing across a snowscape.” Five piccolos and oboes playing together?! That really is a frightening invention!! The more stunning thing to me, though, is the presence of piano timbre, which seldom comes through in the film.

Nexus entry.

Unknown.jpegThis reminds me of a recent conversation I had with Bill Gokelman (Chair of the UIW Department of Music), who had played the piano part for some excerpts from Star Wars (as performed by the San Antonio Symphony) some years ago and was stunned by the demands placed on the pianist. With so much piano activity, why is there so little evidence of it in the film? Why hide the piano? Is it too human a sound, suggestive of real people playing real instruments? It’s certainly a sound that never emerges from Wagner’s pit. Or maybe the timbre itself comes across as too American neoclassical? Whatever the filmmakers might have thought when dusting the piano under the sonic rug, when I hear John Williams’s “frightful invention” on the OST, the reference that leaps to mind is George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique (1924), a fitting source of inspiration for the “dance” of AT-ATs on ice. Do you hear that, Disney? “AT-ATs on Ice.” There’s a fertile idea for a post-Episode IX theme park attraction. Yoda Claus can lift an X-wing from the impenetrable muck of Dagobah, so I’m sure he can manage a Star Wars ice show. Just don’t skimp on the lightsabers. Oh. And ask him to bring back C-3PO cereal. At least for the holidays.

Nexus exit.