Friday, April 30, 2010

Chelsea's 1945-Present Journal

Dolmen Music

Meredith Monk (1942- )

The possibilities for sounds, textures, and timbres expanded enormously during the twentieth century, and many composers began using non-traditional techniques to create new and unique sounds in their music. Meredith Monk was one of these composers, experimenting with the sounds of the human voice in her compositions.

Dolmen Music is a unique blend of six voices, a cello, and percussion. The piece features in some sections minimalistic accompaniment with the cello playing several open chords repeatedly. There are no lyrics in the composition; instead, all six voices are asked to sing and speak in a wide range of syllable sounds and noises. The overall effect of these voices is a very raw and primitive sound, and I was occasionally reminded of some of the field recordings of Bela Bartok that we listened to in class – even some of the music itself vaguely resembles parts of Bartok's Mikrokosmos. In a documentary by Peter Greenaway featuring Monk along with several other American composers, Monk mentions that her inspiration for this piece came from seeing the dolmens (a type of ancient stone burial tomb similar to the stone structures of Stonehenge) in Brittany, France. She felt as though they could have been created by people on this planet or by some other creature from a different place, and so she decided to reflect this by blending an old style of music with a somewhat futuristic style to create Dolmen Music. Monk embraces the archaic qualities of the composition alongside the unique, contemporary sounds. I find it very interesting that the voices are able to simultaneously sound primitively folk-like and eerily out-of-this-world. Watching the Greenaway documentary added the visual element that further shaped my view of this work; in many instances, the ensemble of singers appeared to be communicating directly with each other through the singing. This added to the strange sensation of a different “language” being spoken – one that is not from this world.

The piece is split into six sections:

A. Overture and Men's Conclave

B. Wa-Ohs

C. Rain

D. Pine Tree Lullaby

E. Calls

F. Conclusion

At the beginning of the piece, a slow, simple melodic line precedes the voice parts, which are mostly female at first and then transition to male voices. As the male voices sing, they frequently break off into sections in which they speak in a garbled, distant fashion. Gradually the female voices join them again and the movement finishes soon after. As the piece progresses, the voices hardly sound human at times – occasionally, they are asked to replicate the sound of the Jewish harp or sing in an almost obnoxiously nasal tone. The final movement of the piece returns to the beginning themes found in the first movement, creating a circular effect to the piece as a whole. As eclectic as the composition sounds, I find Dolmen Music to be an intriguing example of the abilities of the human voice as an instrument. Emotion often translates much more effectively through the voice rather than a standard instrument, and the extreme contrasts between these emotions create a tension in the piece that is difficult to describe. The moods of Dolmen Music can vary from ethereal to incredibly aggressive within a matter of seconds.

Upon first listening to this piece, I was turned off by the crude sound of the voice – as a vocal accompanist, I am used to hearing a more classically trained, beautiful sound. But after listening several more times, I came to realize that these voices were indeed incorporating and utilizing advanced technique, such as rapidly repeated glottal attacks or extreme color changes.

I think that Monk really stepped outside the comfort zone of audiences and performers alike to create an intense, expressive piece of art. However, I can understand how she is not included in the canon because of other composers who experimented with various vocal styles alongside her, such as Berio. Also, I believe that it is extremely difficult to place any composers/compositions in the 20th century under any type of canonic label. The range of compositional ideas and experiments are truly limitless in this time frame, and without a sense of standard, it is virtually impossible to compare these works. Furthermore, even the fundamental definition of music is changing during this time. With factors such as these, I can hardly say one way or another whether Dolmen Music deserves a place in the canon, but it can definitely be considered an interesting, thought-provoking piece of music.

Jowitt, Deborah, ed. Meredith Monk. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Greenaway's documentary:

Monday, March 29, 2010

Chelsea's 1900-1945 Listening Journal


and other organ works

Jehan Alain (1911-1940)

Jehan Alain was born into a musical French family in 1911, in the town of St Germaine-en-Laye. His father, Albert, was a composer, organist, and organ builder, and Jehan grew up in a household overflowing with musical influence. His father even built a small organ in the living room of their home, providing Alain with constant access to a musical instrument during his childhood years. He first received instruction on the organ from his father and the piano from his grandmother. Ultimately, Alain ended up attending the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied various musical concepts under teachers such as Bloch, Caussade, Dukas, Roger-Ducasse, and even Marcel Dupre. Although organ is the primary focus of his compositional output, Alain also covered the genres of piano, choral, vocal, and chamber music. Out of around 120 pieces composed throughout his lifetime, about 25 percent are for the organ. Some of these works, such as Litanies and Trois danses, are vital parts of the organ repertoire of the 1900s.

Litanies is one of the more vibrant organ pieces composed by Alain. The work is prefaced with this text: "When, in its distress, the christian soul can find no more words to implore the mercy of God, it repeats, times without end, the same fierce-faithed prayer. Reason reaches its limits and only belief can chase its flight." In reference to the text, Alain begins the work with a bold opening statement, which is influenced by his fascination with the rhythmic flexibility and melismatic passagework of the Gregorian chants. After the quick, chant-like opening passage, the music immediately begins developing through the use of louder, syncopated harmonies contrasted with quieter sections. The work continues to build momentum until the final climax, ending with huge, sustained chords. Litanies features quite virtuosic organ playing, but many of Alain's other organ works focus more on creating an expressive texture through which he conveys an image or emotion. Le jardin suspendu begins almost mysteriously with a contemplative melody in the upper register of the organ. The tones blend together, creating a quiet wash of sound that never builds to more than a mezzo-forte. The wandering pitches invoke a sense of hypnotism in the “suspended garden.”

As an organist myself, I was drawn to Litanies immediately upon hearing it. Alain's grasp of the combinations of organ stops and registrations is fabulous, and the way he plays between the various sounds of the instrument creates an almost orchestral sound. In Litanies, he takes full advantage of the principal stops of the organ, which sound like the typical “organ” sound we are used to hearing. However, by using sharp dynamic contrast, the piece never seems dull or predictable. In many of his other works, he utilizes the other stops on the organ, such as strings, flutes, and reeds, which provide orchestral color and texture. These stops simply mimic the sounds of various string, flute, and reed instruments by using organ pipes that have different shapes or materials. Alain masterfully layers these stops to create registrations that bring his compositions to life.

Numerous musical influences appear in many of his works, but Alain always seems to remain original and fresh. I would consider his compositional sound to be described as intriguing, introspective, and most of all, creative. Even so, he composed alongside other organist-composers such as Messiaen and Duruflé, which would limit his likeliness to be included in the canon. Also, none of his works are on a large enough scale to really stand on their own. That being said, his compositions can still be considered valuable in an organist's repertoire today.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chelsea's Romantic Listening Journal

Suite Española Op. 47, Nos. 1 and 2
Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909)

The nationalistic music of the Romantic period cannot be discussed without the mention of Isaac Albéniz, a composer born in Spain in 1860. His works are saturated with the sounds of Spanish folk tunes, instruments, and dances. The Suite Española is no exception, with eight movements depicting various regions of Spain. Albéniz imitates guitars and castanets through the use of arpeggiated chords. The first movement, Granada, consists of light guitar-like arpeggiated chords in the right hand with a melodic tenor line in the left hand. A contrasting minor section in the middle showcases a more dramatic melody accented with trills and other ornamentation before returning to the first theme again. The movement ends quietly and simply. In the second movement, Cataluna, Albéniz again utilizes arpeggiation to create a guitar sound, but this time in the left hand. The movement opens with a dramatic melodic statement followed by a lilting melody with chordal accompaniment. This movement is much more involved than the Granada, with virtuosic passages and sharp dynamic contrasts. The Cataluna movement mirrors many of the traditional elements of the Sardana dance, which is a typical dance from the Catalonian region in Spain. This dance also begins with a free, solo instrumental introduction leading into the dance, which is either in 2/4 or 6/8. In my opinion, Albéniz did a fantastic job of creating a vivid aural representation of this dance.

After listening to both movements on piano, I was curious to hear some of the many guitar arrangements I saw available. I found that I much prefer the guitar recordings, simply because the style of composition is so much more natural on guitar. The arpeggiated chords begin to sound tedious and clunky on the piano after a few minutes of listening, but seem very appropriate when heard on the Spanish guitar. I also found the melodic contrast to be more appealing on the guitar as well.

While Albéniz was a crucial part of the Spanish music composed during his lifetime, I understand why these pieces aren't included in the canon. They simply aren't substantial enough to stand up against the huge output of not only piano music, but other major works being written during this period. In other European countries, composers like Wagner and Verdi were creating enormous nationalistic operas that, at the time, would clearly overshadow smaller pieces such as this suite. Even just within Spain itself, Albéniz was composing alongside Enrique Granados, another important composer and pianist who wrote within the same genre of Spanish nationalistic compositions. Albéniz was also composing at the same time as many of the piano greats across Europe were creating a huge outpour of repertoire for this instrument, which was becoming more and more popular very rapidly. Although Albéniz was quite popular in his time, his small-scale works such as Suite Española just cannot hold their own in the world of piano repertoire. While it provides an intriguing view into the culture of Spain, it does not have the widespread, international appeal of music composed by Chopin or Liszt, for example. It is a different story for guitar repertoire, however, as many classical guitarists practice and perform this suite regularly. Even so, Suite Española remains as a lesser known work of the Romantic period.
Clark, Walter Aaron. Isaac Albéniz: Portrait of a Romantic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Classical Listening Journal

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 3, No. 5
Maddalena Laura Lombardini Sirmen (1745-1818)

Maddalena Laura Sirmen was one of the most influential and publicly acknowledged female composers and violinists of the eighteenth century. Born in Venice, she began her musical training at a young age. Besides composing, she led an active performance career, performing in many of the major cities across Europe alongside her husband, Lodovico Sirmen. Her compositions include trios for two violins and bass, string quartets, concerti adapted for the harpsichord, violin duets, and violin concerti. Out of the six violin concerti in Sirmen's third opus, I will be discussing the fifth.

The Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 3, No. 5, is written in the key of B-flat major, and its fast-slow-fast organization of movements is typical of the eighteenth century concerto. The role of the violin in this piece is quite virtuosic, with many technical demands on the solo violinist. As a student of one of the most famous violinists and composers of the day, Guiseppe Tartini, Sirmen shows much of Tartini's compositional styles in her violin music. The first movement of this work is marked Maestoso, and is in concerto-sonata allegro form. Its lively use of dotted rhythms, large leaps, and complex ornamentation make for an engaging opening of the concerto. Even with the Maestoso feeling in this movement, the energy moves forward with a faster tempo. The orchestra has a fuller sound while still sounding light enough to cater to the violin's volume. A short cadenza during the final part of the movement brings the first movement to a triumphant close. The second movement, accompanied only by first and second violins, is an example of the balanced design often found in Classical period music. By contrasting the first and third movements' thicker textures with the second movement's thinner orchestration, a sense of proportion and balance is achieved. This contrast is typical of the Venetian style of the time. Appoggiaturas and suspensions abound within this movement, create a sighing sense of longing. The dynamics stay fairly static, keeping a similar mood throughout. While the melody is lovely and lyrical, I did not feel particularly drawn to it. The third movement is a rondo, which is another standard characteristic of Classical concerti. As in the first movement, dotted rhythms provide energy through the continuous motion of the rondo. The main motive gets rather repetitive after a few minutes, but is interrupted by a capricious solo violin phrase in the middle of the movement. After returning back to the original theme, it continues towards the end of the piece, finishing with a few subtle closing chords.

When I first listened to this piece, I almost thought it sounded similar to some of Haydn's music. Each time I listened again, though, I heard different motives and themes that sounded familiar yet fresh to me. Part of the reason for this is because, like any work from the Classical period, harmonies are predictable, melodies are somewhat simple, and cadences are absolutely blatant. Even within these classical “restrictions”, however, Sirmen managed to create a vibrant piece of music that comes alive with the energy of the solo violin. Why, then, isn't this piece included in the canon? Considering she composed works with widespread appeal and also performed frequently for the public, one would think that Sirmen would be considered among other standard composers of the Classical period. Although her works were popular with the audience of the time, she really didn't compose a particularly large amount of music; much of what she did write is for the violin, which restricts even further the appeal to a general audience today. Another possible reason for being excluded from the canon could be her gender. Female composers were not widely accepted during this period, and frankly, I find it astounding that she led an active performing career during her lifetime. The fact that she both composed and performed successfully for a receptive, supportive audience is quite astonishing. With all of these things considered, I still find it hard to believe that pieces such as this violin concerto aren't more popular repertoire choices among students today. I acknowledge that the music isn't totally captivating, but there is a significance to be found within, both musically and technically.
Arnold, Elsie, and Baldauf-Berdes, Jane. Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen. Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2002.
Pendle, Karin, ed. Women & Music. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.