Sep 16

Disparate styles?

The program for our upcoming performance at Gettysburg College has been chosen with the aim of illustrating a broad range of styles, and combinations of the four voices we’ll be bringing (Charlotte Mundy, soprano; Elisa Sutherland, mezzo; Tomás Cruz, tenor; and me, baritone). While a potpourri of differences can be refreshing, I always find the commonalities lurking behind seemingly disparate elements to be more interesting.

I’d like to take as an example two of the quartets we’ll be featuring: Milton Babbitt’s Three Cultivated Choruses, and Ben Johnston’s Rose. At first glance, even the pairing of the composers seems as diametrically opposed as you could find. Johnston’s work has a regular rhythmic pulse, ringing consonant harmonies, scale-wise melodies, and traditional phrase shapes. Babbitt’s choruses, on the other hand, have complex aperiodic rhythms, rapidly changing harmonies, and fragmented melodic leaps.

Of course this is a terrible oversimplification and a simplistic view of both pieces.

Ben Johnston’s harmonic language results in clear, ringing chords, but it is built on a complex theoretical structure related to the composer’s formative work as assistant to the grandfather of American microtonality, Harry Partch. For a primer in Just Intonation, see our earlier post here. Johnston’s music is built on tuning relationships defined by the overtone series. To put it simply (or at least briefly), each prime number partial over a given fundamental gives us a new kind of interval. The 3rd partial supplies us with perfect fifths, the 5th partial with just major thirds, the 7th partial with the natural horn or barbershop seventh, and the 11th with a tritone a quarter step low. Johnston’s octet Sonnets of Desolation uses all eight voices singing in huge stacked chords using all of these overtones together, to create a rich and impressive sound. His earlier work Rose is in its own way a more radical theoretical exercise in tuning, despite sounding a bit like a folky Renaissance piece. It is entirely based around the 3rd and 7th partial, totally omitting the 5th, and thereby omitting any just minor or major thirds (6:5 and 5:4). In my correspondence with the composer he explained to me that the lack of 5th partial relationships in the piece was actually conceived as a kind of aesthetic rejoinder to fellow composer La Monte Young, who habitually employs far higher partial relationships than Johnston, but always skips the 5th. I find it funny that what was originally planned as a proof for the inviability of a certain harmonic approach actually shows it off quite beautifully.

Milton Babbitt’s Three Cultivated Choruses is an entirely different beast. While the harmonies fly by and are constantly changing, they are built from remarkably simple and repetitive structures in each voice. The very first thing we hear in the piece is the soprano singing an ascending Ab minor triad, and sure enough, both the soprano and mezzo sing nothing but arpeggiated triads throughout the rest of the movement. The first bass entrance is D3, E3, A2, echoing a traditional root position IV V I progression. The tenor and bass sing only this chord and its inversions throughout the first movement. Despite the extraordinarily traditional building blocks, Babbitt combines the lines to form a rich variety of harmonies, ranging from root position triads to astringent dissonances.

I think Babbitt and Johnston are in a way both ‘maximalist’ composers, when it comes to harmony. Johnston uses Just Intonation to seek out both perfect consonances and more intense dissonances, and Babbitt’s rigorous combinatorial approach leads to an incredible variety of harmonic possibilities. They are both musical explorers, seeking out new modes of expression, and working tirelessly on lifelong personal projects.

Aug 16

Bach and Lang: Christmas and Passion

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 countertenor, Tim Keeler.

The Skaneateles Festival website lists our concert with The Knights on September 1st with the title “Passion, Past and Present.” This is a little confusing: both Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion and Bach’s cantata “Dazu ist erschienen” are ostensibly Christmas pieces. Bach composed BWV 40 for the day after Christmas in 1723. The text, while not always explicitly about the birth of Christ, includes lines like “the Lord appears as a servant and … is born as Comforter and Savior.” Hans Christian Andersen’s story about the little match girl is traditionally told around Christmas (it takes place on New Year’s Eve and the little match girl has visions of a “large, glorious Christmas-tree”). Labeling both works as “passion” compositions doesn’t really make sense.

“But Tim,” you protest, “David Lang included the word ‘passion’ in the title of his piece! So it must be connected to the passion of Christ!” Ah, yes, you’re right. Lang makes the connection explicit in the title of his work and in the program notes he includes with the score when he observes that “Andersen tells this story as a kind of parable, drawing a religious and moral equivalency between the suffering of the poor girl and the suffering of Jesus.” Lang subverts the typical Dickensian Christmas story of missed magnanimity by focusing on the suffering brought about by the avarice of others, thus foreshadowing the passion of Christ even as we celebrate his birth.

It is a little harder to reconcile BWV 40 with the passion label, but it is possible… and revealing. Most of the text for BWV 40 celebrates the coming of Christ and how his birth will forever rid humanity of suffering and sin. The text of the opening chorus can be translated as “For this the Son of God appeared, that he might destroy the works of the Devil.” In general, the cantata is very happy and expectant. There is only one time in the course of the work where any mention is made of exactly how the son of God might “destroy the works of the Devil.” This occurs during the sixth movement. The chorale text here reads “through the suffering of my Savior, [I] am borne away from you into the hall of rejoicing.” Bach sets the word “suffering” (“Leiden,” in German) with a perfectly timed deceptive cadence, thus highlighting the word, drawing attention to its significance, and giving the congregation (or audience!) time to reflect. It is the only moment of respite amid the otherwise jubilant work. December 26th isn’t necessarily the best day to think about the passion of Christ, but Bach here briefly acknowledges the rest of the story. The Christian belief in the forgiveness of sin and in eternal life hinges on the suffering of Jesus. Bach gently reminds us that it is not enough for Him to simply be born.

The text in Lang’s setting can be depressing and hopeless: “Rest soft, daughter. Where is your grave, daughter? Where is your tomb?” Unlike Jesus’ suffering, the suffering of the little match girl goes unnoticed. She dies for no one’s sins. What is more tragic: to suffer for a great purpose? or to suffer in anonymity? In Bach’s cantata, we celebrate the birth of Christ because we know his suffering will save mankind. In Lang’s composition, we acknowledge and lament the constant, everyday suffering of those around us, those we often forget, and those who are simply too much trouble. Combining these two “Christmas” works into one “Passion” concert highlights the incongruities inherent in our conceptions of human significance. David Lang states as much at the end of his notes, when he writes that “the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’, (I hope) elevating her sorrow to a higher plane.”

Jul 15

Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning

We are so pleased to announce that we are the recipients of a 2015 Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning grant for a new work from Christopher Trapani!

The piece will be written for six voices and an innovative system of live electronics that will blend pre-recorded vocals with live sounds in precisely micro-tuned combination.