Posts Tagged: Christopher Trapani

Nov 17

An uneasy symmetry?

As part of our 2017-2018 season we’re continuing to give each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our bass, Steven Hrycelak.

So much of the history of Western music centers around tonic and dominant harmonies, as well the dominant’s functional cousin, the subdominant.

For those of us obsessed with symmetry, however, it is worth noting that the thing that divides the octave in half is the tritone — which is exactly in between the fourth and fifth scale degrees, upon which the subdominant and dominant chords are built.

To achieve a scale that contains these fourth and fifth scale degrees, major and minor scales are made of various combinations of whole and half steps. Scale degree four and five are a whole step apart, but a scale of only whole steps would contain neither of these pitches; that is, neither a perfect fourth nor a perfect fifth above the root would be in this scale.

How, then, to achieve something more symmetrical? More contemporary composers have explored two options. First, the whole tone scale, which divides the octave into six equal whole steps, and the tritone into three equal whole steps. Dominant and subdominant harmonies are not a part of compositions employing this scale, and any given scale degree has less prominence, but a feeling of completion or circularity may still be felt as the octave is achieved, depending on how the composer uses this scale. The other frequently employed option — more of a technique than a scale, per se — is based on minor thirds, which can stack indefinitely to create diminished triads. This divides the octave into four equal parts, or the tritone into two equal parts. I find that this configuration further downplays the prominence of scale degrees, meaning that nothing feels like a root as diminished triads endlessly invert.

Chris Trapani, in his piece End Words, explores a further division of this symmetry — and one that we are not used to either performing or hearing. In the second movement this piece, the building block is a scale in which the minor third is cut in half; in other words, each scale degree is equal to 1.5 semitones. In this way, the octave is divided into eight equal parts; the tritone, into four.

In my experience in working on this piece, this adds to a further lack of grounding, or a feeling of weightlessness, as the size of the interval is not one that we encounter regularly. But, since each interval is the same size, perhaps there is also something grounding in that? Maybe you have another reaction altogether? I’d love to know what you think, when you come to hear us on Friday night!

Nov 17

Second chances

As part of our 2017-2018 season we’re continuing to give each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our baritone and director, Jeffrey Gavett.

As musicians working in contemporary music, we have a lot of first chances at things. Whether we’re first cracking open a new, ink-still-wet commission written just for us, or digging into an existing, new-to-us work for the first time, a lot of our work consists of first encounters. This is an exciting way to be dealing with art and life, and I’m sure that this is at least part of what draws many of us to this field.

Because of this state of affairs, second chances are even more special to me. Every piece that’s ever been performed has a premiere; not every piece gets a second performance. This week we’re giving the second performance of End Words, a substantial piece written for us by Christopher Trapani, and commissioned by Chamber Music America.

Coming back to a piece after the premiere, I look at it with totally different eyes. Despite the hours and hours we spent rehearsing the piece for the premiere, I’ve found new questions to ask the composer, finding ambiguity in passages that I previously read through without a second thought. Certain sections feel internalized and ‘finished’, while others feel totally foreign – did my score change in the last six months?

A second performance still requires a deep reassessment of the work. The piece isn’t brand new, but it also isn’t at all a repertoire standard yet. Sometimes I find it useful to take the process of learning for a second performance more like another chance at a first engagement with the score, walking the same paths with a different intention. What if, instead of focusing on hearing a section harmonically, I focus on the linear intervals; instead of a rhythmic focus, what about a melodic one? A great piece of music can yield new insights with each performance, and ideally, the second performance is a chance to go in a different direction than the first, further opening the possibilities. I’m very excited for this second performance – and maybe even more so for the third, coming up this May. What could be better than a second second chance?

Aug 17

Ekmeles +

Ekmeles is augmented by electronic accompaniment for this celebration of collaborative sound. Ekmeles’s Chamber Music America commission from Christopher Trapani receives its second performance here, paired with an older work for voices and electronics by established master of computer music Kaija Saariaho. Finally, the expansive and open form of John Cage mixes voices and electronics in four interconnected solos.

  • Christopher Trapani – End Words (2016)
  • Kaija Saariaho – Nuits, Adieux (1991)
  • John Cage – Four Solos for Voice (93-96) (1988)

Ekmeles personnel for concert

End Words has been made possible by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund.

May 17

Why bother?

As part of our 2016-2017 season we’re giving each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our soprano, Charlotte Mundy.

Why bother with microtonal music?

I ask myself this question often, especially when I should be practicing microtonal music. I complain, ‘it takes soooo much work to learn, the myriad obscure symbols people use to notate it are confusing, and the human voice, prone as it is to pitch inconsistency, cannot possibly be the best tool for rendering infinitesimally precise systems of tuning. So why am I sitting inside on a beautiful spring afternoon singing along to a midi rendering?!?!’

But then Ekmeles gets together for rehearsal, somehow we manage to produce some precise, just-tuned chords, and suddenly I remember:

Because it’s literal magic, that’s why.

A couple weeks ago we got our first chance to sing with the electronic part for Christopher Trapani’s brand new piece, End Words, and we kept breaking down in fits of giggles. OK, partly that was because we were hearing each others’ voices unexpectedly coming out of speakers mounted on the walls around us – talking, humming, singing – as if our invisible dopplegangers were popping in and out of the room at will. But also, the harmonies we were immersed in, based on the harmonic series and rendered perfectly via digitally-tuned recordings, are utterly disarming. I can’t help but feel a little off-balance and giddy when I’m immersed in them.

Come to our show next Saturday, May 20, at the DiMenna Center to hear (and feel!) what I mean. Along with the world premiere of End Words, we’ll perform two other works that have awesome electronic tracks and gorgeous vocal writing – Zosha Di Castri’s The Animal After Whom Others are Named and Joanna Bailie’s Harmonizing – and Courtney Bryan’s kinetic, exciting A Time For Everything. Hope to see you there!

Apr 17

End Words

Ekmeles performs the World Premiere of Christopher Trapani’s End Words, a Chamber Music America commission. It will be paired with the U.S. premiere of a work by Joanna Bailie, as well as Ekmeles commissions by Courtney Bryan and Zosha di Castri

  • Christopher Trapani – End Words (2017) World Premiere
  • Joanna Bailie – Harmonizing (2012) U.S. Premiere
  • Courtney Bryan – A Time for Everything (2013)
  • Zosha di Castri – The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named (2013)

Ekmeles personnel for concert

End Words has been made possible by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund.

Ekmeles in Manhattan, Spring 2017 is made possible in part with public funds from Creative Engagement, supported by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and administered by Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.

Nov 13

JI Composers: Christopher Trapani

This is the first in a series of conversations with composers who work in just intonation, and other microtonal systems. Questions from Ekmeles are bolded, the composer’s responses follow.

Why not 12-note equal temperament?

It comes down to this question, one I ask myself often: What exactly enchants me as a listener in the music I love? More often than not, it’s small expressive details that capture my attention, the fleeting surface gestures or stylistic inflections that make a performance distinctive. Replicating that kind of expressivity requires a full palette of pitch material; my works often run the gamut, mixing highly-detailed microtonality with tempered passages. Microtones are a vital component of almost every musical tradition: jazz, blues, country, electronic music, many folk styles, early music — almost everywhere except in the mainstream art music of the last few centuries.

Speaking more broadly, I’m captivated by the idea of consonance, and devoted to pushing the boundaries of what can be considered to “sound good.” Just intonation sparks my imagination because what appears to be a complex network of pitch relationships can be boiled down to multiples of whole numbers, simplest ratios that require extreme precision in tuning. I’m very attracted to this idea that simplicity and complexity can be a matter of perspective.

Why the systems and pitches you use?

My approach is simple: the system has to fit the project. I’m very concerned with making my music practical form a performance standpoint, so that the microtones can be reliably performed — whatever that might mean in a given context. I’ve often used the trick of retuning winds, plucked strings (guitar, mandolin, autoharp), or bowed strings (playing only harmonics and open strings) down by a quarter-tone, so that a player can use “normal” fingerings but still play reliable microtones.

I’ve also written for instruments which are specifically designed to produce microtones, in which case the system is more or less decided for me. I’ve worked extensively with the qanûn for instance, a middle-eastern zither equipped with small levers under the string that can produce microtones by changing the string length. I’ve used both the Syrian version (in Üsküdar and Widening Circles) which gives tempered quarter-tones, as well as a just intonation qanûn designed by Julien Weiss, for whom I wrote a solo part tailored to his particular tuning system in Cognitive Consonance. Or another example: the Fokker Organ, a MIDI-controlled microtonal organ in the Amsterdam Muziekgebouw, for which I also composed a short piece.

Another approach I’ve used is to write strictly tempered music for tempered instruments complemented by electronically created microtonal sounds, aiming for a fusion of live sound and synthesis or retuned samples that sounds like a single microtonal instrument. And there’s also my hexaphonic electric guitar, whose strings can be electronically retuned by a Max/MSP patch. I find that working with electronics offers the broadest range of possibility and precision, and a lot of my most fantastical pitch-related ideas are best realized in that medium.

A qanûn, showing the levers used for tuning

A qanûn, showing the levers used for tuning

What was your first encounter with microtones?

Wow, it’s coming up on a decade now… Shortly after I first moved to Paris in 2003, I caught a complete performance of Gérard Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques. I’d heard Partiels (the third piece in the series) about a year earlier, and (weird to think of this in retrospect) only the theatrics at the end made an impression. But being enveloped by those lush harmonies in the concert hall was life-changing. Microtones were the key, it dawned on me around then, and I started devouring all the French microtonal music I could find, starting with Murail, Hurel, Leroux… For my first piece with microtones — a quartet for four clarinets written in 2004 — I decided I’d consciously train myself to hear microtonal intervals, and started constructing chords from slices of the harmonic series. But even in this first piece, I wasn’t doing just intonation drones, but working towards a richer polyphony, focusing on the voice-leading interactions between multiple microtonal lines.

My second microtonal revelation came when I discovered Turkish music. Often you hear that microtonal music has to be slow to be effective, that it takes the ear a while to attune itself to “unfamiliar” intervals. But in Ottoman classical music I discovered an entire tradition of fast and yet extremely precise microtones. The Turks rely on a combination of specially designed instruments and an internalized tradition that divides the octave (approximately but not quite exactly or consistently) into 53 parts. The idea that a microtonal theoretical framework could exist in tandem with a practice that tolerations deviations (which is in fact the way most supposedly tempered music is performed!) was illuminating for me and a source of inspiration for several pieces to follow.

Excerpt from Trapani's Cognitive Consonance

Excerpt from Trapani’s Cognitive Consonance

What piece of microtonal music that you didn’t write is most important to you?

I’ll go with either Harry Partch’s And on the Seventh Day the Petals Fell in Petaluma or Blind Willie Johnson’s version of “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground”