Sunday, May 31, 2015

Waywords and Meansigns: Finnegans Reawakening as Music

(This review was originally published, in a slightly shorter version, on Sit Down Listen Up: One Album.)

Now this is an interesting idea: the “whole wholume” of James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” set to music by various musicians, not as a set of songs or an opera but as a single day-long composition. I’ve listened to about two-thirds of it so far, and it promises to be something greater than the sum of its parts. It is available for free download or streaming audio at Waywords and Meansigns.

For those unfamiliar with the novel, FW is an epic (some would say impenetrable) stream-of-consciousness dream narrative with the barest thread of a plot. A man, H. C. Earwicker, or just HCE, is sleeping. In his dream, he becomes a landscape on which is reenacted the fall of man, symbolized by Humpty Dumpty’s fall and the fall of Tim Finnegan from a ladder. Later in the dream, Earwicker commits an uncertain crime, and is put on trial. Anna Livia, or ALP (probably Earwicker’s wife in his non-sleeping life), presents a letter which will maybe exonerate him; but the letter is either lost in a chicken coop or just unreadable, and is mocked instead. The dream then shifts to three other characters, either Earwicker’s children or fragments of his own psyche (or both): the lowlife Shem the Penman, the heroic Shaun the Postman (aka Juan and Yawn), and the flighty Issy (aka Izzy, Lizzy, and Tizzy). These three regress to their childhood – and while growing up again, Shaun proves to be Earwicker himself. The meaning of “wake” shifts from Tim Finnegan’s funeral to the idea of “waking up” or resurrection, and (though the last monologue is given to Anna), Earwicker awakens and the novel abruptly cuts off – or loops back around to the beginning.

This unresolved fragment is hardly a storyline for a novel. (To be fair, the book is actually much more complex and has literally hundreds of minor characters who float in and out of the dream.) But it isn’t really about plot; it’s not really “about” anything. The interest comes in Joyce’s use of language: the entire tome is a vast puzzle on wordplay, shifting (and very complex) symbolism, and dream imagery.

In this recorded version of chapter one, interest is also created by the music and the readings. Acoustic, Irish-tinged repetitive minimalism (mostly on a mandolin) accompanies the first part; this later gives way (during the “Mutt and Jute” conversation) to electronic hums and whistles, and then more subtle harpsichord and scratchy strings (for the Prankquean sequence), then “retro” synthesizers (in the Japanese pentatonic scale) and Indonesian kacape. Though James Joyce was Irish, the voices don’t have a particularly Irish accent but they do sound European – adding, perhaps, another international layer to the already multifaceted text and music.

This works well with FW, of course, with its fractured stream-of-(un)consciousness. The music becomes another layer of the dream. …But I could imagine this as a new type of literature, made for and disseminated on the internet. Musicians and authors could work together, producing words with music that are not “songs” but something closer to films (but without the visual element!). There are precedents, of course. John Cage’s “Indeterminacy” (with David Tudor) certainly counts. I myself have occasionally read a poem or a chapter of a book that I’d written, at the Hugo House (Seattle), with music that I had composed specifically for the background. (I am also still trying to gather musicians to make a recorded version of the “Shervanya Nocturnal Music” that appears in my novel “Tond”.) I had thought of this type of activity, however, as a continuation of the live improvised music accompanying “Beat” poetry and thus perhaps a form of non-rhyming rap – I hadn’t thought of producing an extended composition that goes with (or is part of) an entire novel.

The second section (Book 1 Chapter 2) didn’t at first seem to be “music” to me, but simply an actor reading an audiobook. My opinion changed about two-thirds of the way through, where the “Ballad of Persse O’Reilly” begins – ambient synthesizers trail in from somewhere, unnoticeable at first, and then other voices (all spoken by the same actor) appear. As the ballad itself proceeds, with music partially provided by Mr. Joyce (there is a page of “sheet music” in the novel), it becomes something of a commentary on a nonsensical Irish song sounding as if in the middle of a Broadway musical. The spoken section at the beginning was merely an extended introduction to this.

The trial scene (Book 1 Chapter 3) is accompanied by alt-rock and circus music – perhaps a confirmation of the parody in this scene. Joyce, like Lewis Carroll in “Alice’s Adventures Underground”, was pointing out the absurdity of the court system of the time.

The least satisfying part so far (to me) is the long chapter which contains the “Mookse and Gripes” sequence. This is one of my favorite parts of the book, with its captivating surrealist imagery ripped right from our subconscious: the weirdly macho, armor-encrusted Mookse; the scruffy Gripes (sitting in a tree, made of grapes, and apparently fermenting as the narrative proceeds); their enigmatic but weirdly perfect insults to each other (“Uskybeak! Ungulant! Uvuloid!”); the shimmering cloud-girl watching them from above (she rains into the river after they depart); the “tears of dusk”; the woman “of no appearance with chills at her feet”, and so on. All very interesting, but the problem occurs with the narrator. He renders the entire chapter as the Mookse might, in both a snooty “posh” accent and quasi-drunken slur (with crowd sounds in the background), and it’s difficult to distinguish the characters – the pompous, professorial poohbah who pontificates the parable is particularly problematic to pin down. This could be a meta-comment on the Wake itself; as in most dreams, characters morph and mutate into one another – but in this audio version, it’s simply less interesting.

More successful are the character sketch chapters. Book 1 Chapter 5, a satire on Anna’s letter becomes, at some point, satire on the Book of Kells (Medieval Irish calligraphy) and then Finnegans Wake itself. The music to this section is a series of drones, gradually becoming a Celtic “slow air” and then an Indian raga, and it is very beautiful. The description of Shem the Penman and his ramshackle mansion is likewise delivered over minimalist string quartet music that v e r y slowly emerges from seemingly endless drones. In this case the voice is electronically slowed (slightly) and lowered (considerably), fitting for the effect of the dream. The last chapter of Book 1 is gossip about Anna, accompanied again by alt rock and circus music (and some freeform improvisation); this is a lively and pointed commentary on the ubiquity but immorality of wagging tongues.

Book 2, chapter 1 is the central part of the novel, and the beginning of the densest dream-language. This is presented as a triptych. The opening and closing sections are almost hip-hop, with sections of a heavy beat and samples from pop and rock (“…another one bites the dust…”, “call me maybe…”) and the Ride of the Valkyries. The middle section is rendered as Beatnik poetry (with a slight “Punk” edge) over jazz improvisations and cross-cut with fragments from probably more than fifty recordings of various types of music. The dream has expanded its borders into other times and places. Other chapters of Book 2 are treated similarly except for the “Nightlessons”. This is forty-plus pages of the gobbledygook that the adult worlds of history and mathematics must seem like to children, with equally incomprehensible footnotes by the three kids, some of which (the footnotes) are supposed to sound “intelligent”. Most of this chapter is sung by a single female voice, a capella – a masterstroke by the musician, Liz Longo; one thinks of it as Anna singing the lessons to her children.

I have not heard all of the rest of it yet. Obviously, the extreme length is an impediment to sitting down and giving one’s full attention to listening to this for any particular amount of time. The question arises: to what extent is this an “album”? To what extent is this even “music”? My answer to first question is perhaps obvious: It’s an “album” in that it’s a set of musical “numbers” that occur in a particular order and were intended to be heard (at least once) together; and it is (like the greatest “albums”) more than the sum of its parts. Most “albums”, of course, are between thirty minutes and an hour, appear on one or more recorded media, and can be listened to at one sitting. But there are much longer examples. Double albums such as the Beatles’ “White Album” are of course a little longer but still can be listened to at one sitting if one makes the time. The same with symphonies – I hear these as “albums” intended to be played live (though of course they can be found recorded too); again, most are between thirty minutes and an hour, but some are much longer. The Mahler Third, Bruckner Fifth, and Shostakovich Seventh are all around ninety minutes in length. Operas and musicals are longer still (these, at least in performance, have a visual element, but are again found recorded – music only) – the Mother of All is Wagner’s “Ring” – and here the idea stretches as to what can be experienced at one time. Sound installations and conceptual pieces such as John Cage’s “To Be Played As Slowly As Possible” are the longest of all – these can last for months, or years, or even centuries. (I myself have done a two-month installation.) Of course no one can listen to the whole of one of these; they are more an immersive experience that one can be a part of for as long (or short) as one wishes. But they are “albums” in that they are (sets of, not necessarily) musical “numbers” that are intended to be played together and are greater than the sum of their parts.

The second question, “Is it music?”, is to me at least, more subjective. On one level it’s meta-music: “Finnegan’s Wake” (with the apostrophe) is the title of an Irish ballad, the story of Tim Finnegan’s fall (and resurrection) – referenced in Joyce’s novel. The novel contains other musical references as well. On another level, it’s a discussion of the differences and similarities between music and speech: because much of the fragmented style of writing is not understandable on a literal level, the reader sometimes has to be content to listen to its melody, almost as one listens to the sound of a foreign language as music.

Dismissing all na├»ve, cultural-based ideas such as “music has a beat and chords”, my music teacher when I was in middle school defined music as “organized sound expressing emotion”. I would change it slightly to “sound, other than speech, made on purpose, as expression”. By either definition, this rendition of Finnegans Wake is music as much as it a reading of the novel. It joins musical compositions basedon the Wake, by John Cage, Stephen Albert, Toru Takemitsu, Benjamin Boretz, Witold Lutoslawki, Harry Partch, Samuel Barber, and scores of others (including a musico-dramatic “work in progress” version by my friend Neal Kosaly-Meyer – reviewed last December in this blog). What else it is, is up to the individual listener.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Concert Review: Harry Partch at the University of Washington, 5/26/2015

This was the second concert presented by the UW Harry Partch project (I missed the first). As I walked in, I saw the famous one-of-a-kind instruments on the stage. Some of them were a lot larger than I had expected (and one, the “surrogate kithara”, was a lot smaller). Other people came in and filled up the seats; unexpectedly for “experimental” music, the hall was full to capacity.

For those unfamiliar, Harry Partch (1901 - 1974) was an American musical iconoclast who invented a 43-pitch per octave microtonal scale (based on extensions of ancient Greek concepts), wrote music in it, and invented an “orchestra” of instruments to play it. Most of these instruments are either percussion or plectra (plucked strings). The collection of instruments has resided at various places in the U.S., and is now in the University of Washington, Seattle.

Charles Corey, director of the project, introduced the concert. He stated that there would be a short film first, of Harry Partch himself introducing his home-made instruments. Then there would be the concert itself, played mostly by UW students, then a round-table discussion with questions from the audience.

The film began. They projected it on a curtain (with obvious folds and flaws), not on a screen – and several times at the beginning it (the movie) froze or skipped around. Finally it went blank altogether. Pause for a couple of minutes, then reboot the computer (or boot up another one) and retry. This time it worked. Comment from the audience: “Hey, that theme (the fanfare the computer plays while turning on) isn’t Partch – it’s in a tempered scale!” In the movie, Mr. Partch talked about and played several of his instruments, then played random cuts from “Daphne of the Dunes”. The sound quality wasn’t particularly great, as a lot of early Partch recordings; but it was a suitable (if rather fragmented) intro to the music for those who weren’t familiar with it.

The concert began with the famous “Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales”, for bass marimba (played by Kaley Eaton) and and harmonic canon (the latter is a variation on a koto, though with many more strings much closer together – played by Josh Archibald-Seiffer). The sound was much richer than it has been on recordings. The bass marimba is extremely resonant.

“Two Psalms” followed. “The Lord is My Shepherd (Psalm 23)” was, to me at least, just a voice intoning the text without a particularly interesting accompaniment; but “By the Rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137)” was a more extended chamber movement. The bass-baritone (Jeff Bowen) intoned the first few verses in the same manner as in “Psalm 23”, becoming progressively expressive as the Psalmist lamented the Hebrews’ captivity in Babylon. Coming to “How can I sing the Lord’s song?”, the instruments took over, building to a heart-rendering climax for the brief return of the vocalist. Instruments included the adapted viola, chromelodeon (adapted reed organ, played by Anna Stachurska) and kithara (played by Jeff Boven and then Jacob Sundstrom). The latter instrument is much larger than its ancient Greek prototype: the player has to stand on a riser behind it to play its several banks of strings arranged in chords.

Next, there was an excerpt from “And on the seventh day petals fell in Petaluma”. This is a high-spirited instrumental allegro, far different from the introspective “Psalms”. Huck Hodge and Greg Sinibaldi played it with aplomb on the diamond marimba and surrogate kithara (the latter is so named because it plays in the same manner of the kithara but is smaller and easier to play – it resembles a pedal-steel guitar with two banks of strings).

Back to the introspections. The three excerpts from “Eleven Intrusions” were written just after WWII, with memories of the Great Depression, and embody the despair and anxiety of those periods. “The Crane” is particularly mournful, while “The Waterfall” seems at first a happy little tune but soon takes on darker hues as the vocalist chastises crowds for seeking the “pool of oblivion”. Josh Archibald-Seiffer sang; Luke Morse played the adapted guitar (which has an extra brace on the back besides its adapted tuning) and Declan Sullivan played the diamond marimba.

Probably the most crowd-pleasing piece on the program, “O Frabjous Day!” is a setting of the great humorous poem “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll. Kaley Eaton (harmonic cannon – seemingly amplified) and Isaac Anderson (bass marimba) accompanied with folk-like rhythmic drones and catchy, even rhythms, while Charles Corey sang the poem in a tuneful declamatory style. The humor of the nonsense poem was enhanced by Partch’s cheery setting.

The last piece also included humor, provided in part by the Mazda marimba played by Andrew Angeli. This is one of Partch’s zaniest instruments. The sight of a percussionist using mallets on what looks like a table full of light bulbs is in itself subtly hilarious, and when the timbre is added (it really sounds like percussive burps), all bets are off. The boos (as in “play the boos” – bamboo marimba, played by Declan Sullivan) – a stack of bamboo segments strapped together – is only slightly less madcap. The interesting thing is, though, that this second excerpt from “Petals fell in Petaluma” is perfectly serious music, though it is another happy allegro. As in several of Partch’s other works, the humor and the seriousness merged into a seamless whole.

Several members of Partch’s original ensemble were present for the round-table discussion. Some of their comments:

“What we saw at the beginning of the concert tonight (the film starting and restarting) wasn’t Partch – it was classic Cagean chance!”

“When we were rehearsing some of Partch’s music in his original ensemble, he would often say something to the effect of, ‘hey, you’re singing it wrong – it’s not a semitone, it’s supposed to be three-fourths of a semitone…!’”

“Symphony orchestra players play in just intonation. The ‘cellos and basses form the bass line, and then the other orchestra members have to subconsciously adjust, in microtones, to stay in tune.”

“Patch often composed in a way that was explored by Bach: continuous variation. He’d take one idea, spin it out as far as it would go, and then take another idea, and spin it out as far as it would go.” I commented that this was a similar technique (also) to Indian ragas.

“Partch’s music has three periods. First, he wrote art songs (like what was most of the program tonight). This was his lied-in period, pardon the pun. Then he wrote ‘Americana’ based on hobo trips and the like. Lastly, he wrote extended theater pieces.”

“Partch often said his music was ‘corporeal’ in that it involved graceful movements while playing. Also the players had to sing and dance – a very ancient concept.”

“Partch was looking to the future of music by looking into its deep past.”

“After practicing in one of Partch’s early ensembles, everything I heard on the way home – the wind, my car’s tires on the road – became music.”

“The fact that these students could learn this music in just a few weeks, and perform it so well, proves that Partch was a great composer – the music flows well, and just makes sense the way that good music does.”

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The 12th Century in the 21st: Medieval Women's Choir perform Hildegard's "Ordo Virtutm" at St. James, Seattle

Their angelic voices echoed in the vast cathedral, while bells and mysterious instruments sounded, seemingly from everywhere at once. I could see them singing and playing there, in the intersection of the cross-shaped building – but I heard them from all directions. Such is the acoustics of St. James Cathedral in Seattle.

I had heard a performance of Hildegard von Bingen’s “Ordo Virtutum” once before, several decades ago, and at that time I’d bought the recording of the work by Sequentia (then on vinyl, now on CD and probably vinyl again). The recording had never had the same effect as the live performance, and at this concert last Friday I was able to discern why. Music such as this demands the ambient surround-sound delivered by yawning spaces in immense stone and wood buildings.

Ordo Virtutm is an example of an ancient genre of music known as, well, an “ordo”; somewhere between an opera and an extended morality lesson. Archetypal characters (representing Biblical personages or concepts such as “humility” and “an individual soul”) sing and chant as a bare story line leisurely unfolds. Hildegard’s Ordo is one of the earliest still-extant examples of the genre, and perhaps the closest to its roots in Gregorian chant – though there are some extreme differences in the music which place it as a thoroughly individual conception. The melodies flow, freeform, seemingly uninterested in either rhythm or conventional phrasing. Instruments (harps and early versions of violins) accompany, either heterophonically or as drones. Bells ring at key moments, sometimes multiplying into swarms of chiming tones (one instrument was a set of small hand bells strapped to a rotating wheel). Harmony actually appears at times, centuries before the concept of “chords” – Hildegard seems to have perceived it as a special effect, saved for the most dramatic moments.

The story is a simple one. A soul approaches heaven, guided forward by the Virtues (Knowledge of God, Faith, Fear of God, Hope, Obedience, Victory, Humility, Charity, Castity). A rough voice calls from behind her (not singing, and accompanied by rattling percussion); it is the devil, tempting her to abandon her journey. This she does, briefly, but finds her new direction unsatisfying, and lets the Virtues show her the way to heaven again. The devil vows to fight her, but Victory swoops down and binds him up, and the soul makes her way to heaven.

Such a simple story line, of course, is made more interesting (and dramatic) by the music. Exactly how it would have been performed during Hildegard’s time is not certain. This Seattle group did it with medieval costumes, though lighting effects enhanced both the celestial world of the Virtues and the demonic world of the devil. They played and sung the music enthusiastically, sweetly, and dramatically, despite two missed cues by the percussionists. The overall effect was beautiful, and the story still resonates – proving that this was not only a work for its time but for the ages.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Seattle Composers Salon, 5/8/2015

"The Seattle Composers’ Salon fosters the development, performance and appreciation of new music by regional composers and performers. At bi-monthly, informal presentations, the Salon features finished works, previews, and works in progress."

First up: Centaurus X-3 by Matthew James Briggs. Violin (played by Candace Chin) and percussion (played by the composer) created this mysterious soundscape, over prerecorded ambient electronics (made of signals from the Centaurus pulsar and other NASA recordings, slightly scrambled). The violin was also electric; not particularly amplified but enhanced by an extremely long delay. As in much of Matthes’s music, there was an Indonesian influence in the middle, faster section. The interest, however, was mostly in the interactions between the instruments in the slower movements, particularly the slow build-up in the first movement. During the Q and A session after the performance, an audience member asked what the piece would have been like without the electronics. The composer’s comments agreed with my idea: it would be a different piece. Some of the same notes, yes, but definitely a different piece.

Second: Toad Song by Jessi Harvey. The text was by the composer’s sister, about a toad that had lived in the yard of the house they’d lived in as children. The song was from the point of view of the toad. “You have written a great children’s book, and the music is the illustrations,” commented an audience member. Musically, the piece was created from fragments of ascending chromatic scales (sung by the soprano) and amphibian sounds made by the ‘cello; these interacted with more conventional melodic fragments to create longer and more complex ideas.

Third: Two trios by Ian McKnight, both for two flutes and ‘cello. The first, with alto flute, described the life cycle of the mythical phoenix – dying in agony of flames, memorialized by a Gregorian-chant melody, and then returning to life and flying into the sky. I heard none of this in the actual music. The sounds of the alto flute was too pretty and the music was not dissonant enough to suggest something burning up while dying (or perhaps I just associate the alto flute too much with Paul Horn’s Taj Mahal music); the “Gregorian” melody didn’t sound particularly chantlike, and the end wasn’t particularly “happier” than the rest of it. None of these are negative comments, however – I like that the piece suggested the story in a more impressionistic manner, rather than in-your-face Hollywood-style obviousness. A second listening would probably reveal the understated emotions that I half-missed the first time. The second (much shorter) trio was an Irish jig with variations, playing on the 3 against 4 ambiguity suggested by the 6/8 meter.

Finally, two untitled piano pieces (with dancer) by Michael Owcharuk and Karin Stevens. Here, two art-forms fused. The composer and dancer (Karin) stated beforehand that they’d worked on the material together, and intended it to be a collaborative project. Either would have worked by itself, though together they created an audio/visual world based on two types of movement (of sounds, and gestures). The piano music was basically jazz but with a neoclassical feel, the dance was “modern” but again with hints of a classical tradition. There was no particular storyline other than the interest in movement.