Six centuries in search of infinite sonic possibilities:
Four transcendent works of rich, rhythmic and profound substance – and a musical trajectory spanning six centuries – aiming us toward a future of infinite sonic possibilities.
by Victoria Looseleaf
If choruses are the new rap groups - gushing with provocative texts, throbbing rhythms and extravagant wall-of-sound harmonies - expectations are sure to be at fever pitch when a world premiere is about to be unleashed. Because the human voice, from sustained or staccato to transparent or tremolo, succeeds more than any other instrument in acting as a pipeline to the primeval, a harkening back to a collective mode of expression, it is uniquely able to soothe, transport and enlighten.
And while the 21st century continues to offer sonic technological feasts - where digital layering bumps up against samplers, remixers and an iPod mentality - all is trumped by the raw, emotional power of a voice. One need only look to Icelandic pop sensation Bjork, who might seem light years away from Renaissance composer Josquin Des Prez or the romanticisms of Johannes Brahms, to realize she's hooked up on a harmonic continuum to the past. With her latest album, Medulla, the Grammy Award-winning artist calls upon Schola Cantorum and Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq for some of her startlingly original compositions. Comparisons to Igor Stravinsky and Steve Reich might seem less far afield. The Russian's pulsating rhythms, while not the stuff of dance clubs, is still Slavic at heart, one of Bjork's stated ambitions on this album. And, to conjure comparisons to Reich's amplified hypnotic sound universes, check out Bjork's organic yet synthetically deployed vocalese.
Memor esto verbi tui
music by Josquin De sPrez
Text from Psalms 118:49-64, translation by Miles Coverdale, 1535
There's nothing synthetic in the motets of Franco-Flemish polyphony expert Josquin. Often called the father of modern harmony, the composer, who lived from I440- I52I, counted among his patrons Italy's Sforza family and France's Louis XII. While he was considered willful and expensive to commission - the Usher of his day - he nevertheless was one of the first western composers to concentrate on the motet. Seeking inspiration from the Psalms, he found poetry there, setting text in a straightforward fashion but with feeling. Though this was seen as a departure, it drew kudos from such diverse intellectuals as Rabelais and Luther. The motet Memor esto verbi tui was probably composed towards the end of Josquin's career. Featuring a typically small Renaissance choir of SATB (six voices to a part), it begins in strict canon between the basses and tenors, one beat apart. The austere becomes florid when the same rhythmic motif is heard in successive voices (sopranos and altos) on different beats of the bar. The two - section motet divides the text in half, with tenors and sopranos initiating the second part before all four voices sing in interlocking patterns. This contrapuntal overlap is not unlike that found in Reich. Indeed, it is this thinking outside the box - or the beat, as it were - that helps weave the threads in this concert's rich tapestry.
You Are (Variations)
Music by Steve Reich
Composed in 2004. Scored for 3 soprano parts, 1 alto part and 2 tenor parts with 2 flutes, oboe, English horn, 3 A-flat clarinets, 4 pianos, 2 marimbas, 2 vibraphones and strings. Approximate duration is 26 minutes. The piece was co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Lincoln Center and the Ensemble Modern. Tonight's performance is the world premiere.
The use of Psalms is another unifying motif of tonight's program. Reich, at age 68, longed for a restorative - music free from technology - and his You Are (Variations), is both radical and a return to form. The first Reich composition to have its world premiere in Los Angeles, the four-movement work is scored for 18 singers and 24 instrumentalists (all amplified), and though the orchestration is physically downsized, it's not at the expense of sonic bling.
You Are (Variations) also recalls Reich's Jewish roots and his abiding interest in the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. In addition, all the texts, says Reich, who cites Stravinsky as a major influence, contain a truism. Opening with rhythmic urgency, the chorus sings the words of Rebbe Nachman, hurling the listener into a musical world akin to a spiritual rave, with exact canons working their magic much as Josquin's did, one beat apart. The second movement, from Psalm 16, also makes use of a text sung in Hebrew, with brilliant splashes of color marimbas, vibes and pianos - surging forward in constantly changing meters. In fact, it is the relentlessness of the four pianos, with their harmonic orgies, that unite the piece with a buoyant D major chord. The meditative third section offers fragments of Wittgenstein's text, with Reich employing brooding, minor harmonies as a gambit to complement his varying text repetitions. The final movement, which Reich calls a summation of the work, explodes into an E - ticket ride tempo, propelling the music to an abrupt end: a shattering silence, a vision unveiled.
From the composer
The first text is an English translation from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, one of the most magnetic and profound of the late 18th century Hasidic mystics. The quote is from his Likutey Moharan 1:21.
The second text is from Psalm 16 in the original Hebrew and translates as "I place the Eternal before me."
The third is an English translation from the German of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations.
The fourth quote is from Pirke Avot, one of the earliest parts of the Talmud and by far its most popular tractate. The Hebrew, from Rabbi Shammai, translates as "Say little and do much."
Since these texts are all quite brief, it is natural to repeat them with a somewhat different musical setting in each repeat. Hence variations were basically forced on me as a form by my choice of texts. The actual means of variation varies considerably.
Starting out, I made an harmonic ground plan with a short cycle of chords that would serve as the underpinning for all the variations, as has been done historically numerous times before. However, I found that upon completing the first setting of "You are wherever your thoughts are," the second time I started to vary the harmonies. As I went on, they departed further from the original ground plan. I frankly enjoyed this immensely since I was following spontaneous musical intuition. In the third variation there are quotes from "L'homme Armee," the popular song from the 14th century. Starting with the fifth variation I began piling all four pianos on top of each other with conflicting harmonies that produces something new and extremely energetic. In the sixth variation one may hear echoes of James Brown.
The second text, in Hebrew, is sung and then immediately sung in canon which is then repeated and augmented creating a kind of slow motion canon with marimbas, vibes and pianos driving it on in constantly changing meters. After a short pause the slow third movement begins, varying the repetitions of its text in changing, often minor, harmonies. The last movement, again in Hebrew, returns to the original tempo and is composed of augmenting canons similar to the second movement
What unites the piece harmonically is a constantly recurring D major dominant chord - usually with G, rather than A in the bass. This bright ray of D major light illuminates most of the piece, most intensely in the final movement.
- Steve Reich, August 2004
Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz
Music by Johannes Brahms
Text from Psalm 51:12-14
Opus 29, number 2, composed in 1864
We can't know what George Bernard Shaw might have made of Reich's music, but referring to Johannes Brahms he said, "... the real Brahms is nothing more than a sentimental voluptuary with a wonderful ear ..." That ear, fortunately, helped Brahms to compose Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz, (Create in me, God, a Pure Heart) from Psalm 51. In three sections, it is stamped with Brahmsian harmonies and embedded canons and makes use of the full chorale with the kind of rigorous counterpoint found in Reich and Josquin. It is also Brahms at his most Bach - influenced, with fugues to burn. Beginning with sopranos, the basses then enter, but four times slower. Tenors, also in canon, enter a bar later with the third fugue, a joyous one, re-dividing four voices (SATB) into a showpiece for the choir. Ending with a vibrato-laden, Germanic bang, the motet doesn't require one to know the precise harmonic and melodic intricacies in order to, well, feel the groove.
Symphony of Psalms
Music by Igor Stravinsky
Composed at Nice and Charavines in 1930;
Commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky to celebrate the Boston Symphony's 50th anniversary; first performance at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels on December 13, 1930. American premiere in Boston on December 19, 1930. A revised version of the work was published in 1948.
Stravinsky once said, "My music is best understood by children and animals." Add to that quote anyone listening to Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. A formidably devout aural palette and hailed as one of the 20th century's most important pieces, it is also Stravinsky's first major religious score. Sung in Latin, it culls from Psalms 38 and 39 and makes use of the entire Psalm 150 ("Alleluia"). Stravinsky, more concerned with the syllables' sounds than the meaning of the words, dared cut up the texts, a precursor, perhaps, to the DJ scratchings found in today's house, or club, music.
The scoring also fascinates. Abandoning violins, violas and clarinets, Stravinsky opts for a wall of brass and winds - five flutes, five trumpets, three trombones and, lending the music an ancient air, four oboes and four bassoons. A harp ups the lyrical ante, while two pianos and tympani punctuate offbeat rhythmic accents. The first movement, its shortest, is a juxtaposition of recurring ostinato-like patterns, as descending thirds accompany the first entrance of the full chorus. Those same thirds serve as prelude to the double fugue of the second movement, recalling Bach, albeit turned sideways, with four fugal entries in the instrumental opening followed by the choir's entrance and a completely different fugue subject. The third movement, alternating minor and major thirds, opens with a gorgeous phrase of exalted devotion. The chorus, singing "Dominum," ends in a unison E-flat, followed by a barrage of E-major arpeggios and a hushed four-note rising figure Stravinsky said was a depiction "of Elijah's chariot climbing into the Heavens."