Violin Concerto Trilogy
with Third Angle New Music Ensemble, Ron Blessinger, Denise Huizenga, Pacific Rim Gamelan
"...a trilogy of concerti...on the nature of..."
This recording presents a trilogy of violin concerti with titles beginning, "On the Nature of..." The concerti explore the archetypal themes of love (No. 1), harmony (No. 2), and peace (No. 3). In each work, the violin soloist is an adventurer who sets out on a journey of discovery that is filled with challenges and surprises. The music of each concerto is a spiritual landscape that encompasses an array of thoughts and feelings ranging from the lyricism of the reflective music in the first concerto, to the boisterous energy of the finale of the second, to the balance of musical elements at the end of the third.
Violin Concerto No. 1—On the Nature of Love (1996)
Thirteen variations on What Wond'rous Love is This for violin and string orchestra
The thirteen variations of this concerto are transformations on the hymn tune, What Wond'rous Love is This, from the sacred harp (shape note) tradition of the American South. The hymn tunes of this tradition are harmonized with "perfect" intervals of fourths and fifths, resulting in an austere, stark sound that contrasts with the European practice of harmonization using consonant thirds and sixths. At the beginning of the concerto, the bold statement of the theme is played by the string orchestra in a transcription of the standard harmonization printed in The Sacred Harp hymnal. The title—On the Nature of Love—refers to the hymn, and to the nature of love itself, which is viewed in the hymn text as divine:
What wond'rous love is this, O my soul! O my soul!
Ye winged seraphs, fly! Bear the news! Bear the news!
Fill vast eternity with the news, with the news!
In my concerto, however, the focus is on human love and the variations are grouped into four arcs of music that correspond to four phases of a relationship:
Part I. Attraction [Theme & Variations I-IV]
After the soloist introduces the hymn tune, it is played by the string orchestra in an arrangement of the original version from The Sacred Harp hymnal. A series of virtuosic variations culminates in a lyrical and expressive statement that ends with a variant of the tune played in harmonics over the lowest open string of the basses.
Part II. Courtship [Variations V-VI]
The second part features two extended variations of contrasting character. A playful dance of courtship leads to blissful and enraptured music.
Part III. Uniting [Variations VII-VIII]
A series of contrapuntal variations symbolize "uniting"—a fugue with intervening canonic episodes unwinds into spiraling, two-part canons.
Part IV. Celebrating [Variations IX-XIII]
The final group of variations is energetic and celebratory, each one becoming more ecstatic than the former, until finally the hymn tune returns in a richly harmonized, transformed version.
Violin Concerto No. 2—On the Nature of Harmony (1999)
Transformations for violin, Balinese gamelan, and chamber orchestra
On the Nature of Harmony is composed for an ensemble consisting of instruments from diverse cultures, which I call a world orchestra. For the concerto, I have brought together solo violin, an unorthodox group of Western instruments, and a Balinese gamelan. The Euro-American orchestral instruments are: flute/alto flute, oboe/English horn, clarinet/bass clarinet, two vibraphones, marimba and assorted percussion, piano, celesta, harp, string quartet, and contrabass. The Balinese gamelan is a gong kebyar-style ensemble of metallophones, gongs, and a reyong (twelve nipple gongs mounted on a wooden rack).
In regard to tuning, the two musical forces of this concerto—Eastern and Western—behave like polar opposites. Recent Western performance practice requires "match pitch," that is tuning in absolute unisons to the tones of the well-tempered scale. Balinese gamelan is an ensemble of instrumental pairs that are de-tuned so that there is no unison or "match pitch" between any like keys within the ensemble. The tones beat against each other, creating a shimmering effect that is a unique characteristic of Balinese music. The paradoxical relationship between Eastern and Western forces raises many questions- "How can these forces co-exist in the same work if they do not share certain fundamental principles of tuning?" And , "What is the nature of harmony that results from the interaction of forces that are so radically different?"
The work is in three movements, each consisting of a set of variations of the spacious violin theme that begins each piece. Throughout the concerto, the soloist takes the role of an individual, exploring "the world" and "the nature of harmony" through the global ensemble of instruments. The first set of variations (Chaconne Variations/Double Variations) alternates and juxtaposes the Western instruments and Balinese Gamelan. Variations of the same tune are played in extremely different styles. In the second set of variations (Canonic Variations), the musical forces begin to merge in a lyrical and expansive music that is contrasted with a quicker, scherzo-like music featuring the woodwinds. In the final set of variations (Dance Variations), the Western instruments and gamelan are synthesized in a propulsive, rhythmic music that continually bursts forth in unbounded joy.
Harmony, meant as "the process of creating right relations between disparate musical elements," is in this work, a celebration of diversity, difference and unity. Here, the spectrum of sound is no longer defined according to a finite group of pitches in a single tuning system. Rather, all tunings are part of one unbounded sonic continuum. While the difference between the tunings is demonstrated through alternation and juxtaposition in the first movement, in the second and third, the sounds of radically different instruments are synthesized to create a new harmonic world. In this sense, "the nature of harmony" is the merging and fusion of opposites through which a new unity is created from diversity.
Violin Concerto No. 3—On the Nature of Peace (2002)
For violin and chamber orchestra
Of the three concerti, the expressive range of the third is the most extreme and dramatic. The first movement, Conflict, begins with a torrent of sound. Three musical ideas emerge from this that are explored in depth: a running figure in the violin solo; an impassioned lyrical theme; and a chain of bold assertions, initiated by the soloist and imitated by the orchestra. As the movement unfolds, these musical materials combine with each other and transform until the music intensifies then literally bursts open as the soloist and two percussionists diverge in tempo and rhythm from the rest of the orchestra. Ultimately the divergent paths of the percussionists heighten the conflict to a breaking point—ending with a crashing halt of urgent ferocity.
The theme of harmonic elegy draws from the progression of chords introduced in the first movement. The second movement, Elegy Variations, is a response to the musical conflict of the first. The mourner, played by the soloist, laments the conflict displayed during the first movement and seeks reconciliation. Resolution is sought in musical terms, through the transmutation of melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and sound-colors.
With hopeful bell-like sounds, the second movement transforms into the third, Reconciliation, without hesitation. Once again, the soloist takes up the primary themes of the first movement, here transmuted melodically and harmonically. Finally, the choral themes resound with a new spirit of bright energy, the outcome of a musical reconciliation process.
Available here: iTunes HDtracks
Scratchy Monsters and Laughing Ghosts
with Michael J. Schumacher
SCRATCHY MONSTERS ARE THE BAD DREAMS. LAUGHING GHOSTS ARE THE GOOD ONES - according to my daughter, Georgia.
I've never been sure if I hear sounds in my dreams. I'm glad to know that she does. This is a record that I've wished to make for a long time. It seemed less likely as my own interests have moved away from guitar and more towards field recordings and site-specific sound installations. Meanwhile, my friend Mr. Tronzo has stayed as true to the electric guitar and slide as ever. That said, he is a guitar player who sounds like no other and I am more than honored by the collaboration. These tracks were assembled through dual improvisations, followed by files, loops and mixes mailed back and forth. Somewhere in the middle, we invited Michael J. Schumacher to come in and add piano tracks. Michael's improvised tracks now feel as crucial as any of the other elements. As much as this may be an experiment, we hope it is one that you will enjoy as much as we enjoyed making it.
Available here: iTunes
Pondok (2001) is Indonesian for a cottage, such as the tiny bamboo hut I lived in during my first stay in Bali in 1981. I arrived unprepared for the cultural and sensory overload I encountered. I would sit on my porch, transcribing music, smoking clove cigarettes, listening to the shortwave, and trying to make sense of it all. Twenty years later, this piece imagines a different level of repose. Each movement is based on a particular aspect of Balinese music, taken in its own direction to the point of no resemblance. "Fragrant Forest" borrows an attitude toward pacing and phrasing from the first scene of the shadow play; "Tree Trunk" builds on a rhythm buried in the texture of beleganjur marching music; "Ginoman" abstracts from the immobility of the introductions to classical lelambatan; "Gebyog (Husk)" combines the intense rhythms of west Balinese female rice pounding music with the serene postures of its performers. The piece is dedicated to Sarah Cahill.
Piano Trio - Typical Music (2000) was written for the Arden Trio. Before this piece I generally wrote for unusual combinations of instruments, and I wasn't sure what to do with this archetypically classical combination. As I was writing it, I saw Burmese master drummer Kyaw Kyaw Naing perform at a Unitarian Church in Brookline, Massachusetts. Most of his playing that day accompanied song or dance, until finally the well-meaning hostess announced that Kyaw Kyaw would play a solo, no singer and no dance, "just a piece of typical music." The piece is dedicated to Martin Bresnick, my teacher and friend, whose own piano trio serves as a lofty pinnacle of pure music.
Ngaben (for Sari Club) (2003) is for full Balinese gamelan and western orchestra and was written in response to the Bali terrorist bombing of October 12, 2002. I had just begun working on a very different type of piece for gamelan and orchestra, but the printed images of Balinese women crying and praying at the blast site overwhelmed me. Suddenly, musical cross-culturalism meant something far different than it had.
The ngaben cremation is the last and most important life ritual in Balinese Hinduism. Like a traditional New Orleans funeral, it covers a wide range, not all mournful. Loss is acknowledged but subsumed by the far more important task of releasing the soul from the body. The procession itself is serious, chaotic and circuitous: the raised, highly ornamented sarcophagus is spun violently at all intersections so as to confuse evil spirits. The subsequent burning frees the soul to await its next incarnation.
This Ngaben follows the same course, with these two sections fused together by a central kebyar, the highly charged, ametric-but-synchronous tutti which characterizes modern Balinese music. As with Balinese temple rituals, the musicians fill the room—the strings envelop the gamelan on the stage, while the winds are arrayed across the balcony, behind the audience. Kebyar is often translated as a blossoming or lightning flash, but it also means 'explosion.' It arose in response to the bloody Dutch takeover of Bali at the dawn of the 20th century; that tragedy sparked a renaissance of art and cross-cultural exchange on the island which has lasted until this day. This piece, a response to the violence which starts this century, is a small offering in the hope that the east-west exchange will continue undaunted.
Available here: iTunes HDtracks
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