Monday, August 15, 2011

Waltzing to Eurydice

You don’t have to review.  Just respond.
—David Bloom

A couple posts back, I asked, “Does Anyone Still Compose a Waltz?’  I feared that, for 21st century composers and performers who (understandably) thrill to the challenge of playing rhythms like 5 against 4 against 3 against 2 (just try clapping that one out!), 
the waltz’s plain old one-two-three, one-two-three might be the exclusive province of those of us who wear our trousers rolled.  I realized, though, that I hadn’t really been listening for that and made a mental note to try.

The thing is, I’m one of Milton Babbitt’s quintessential lay listeners.  Yes, I took piano lessons—even a high school music theory class—and yes, I learned some basic jazz improvisation along the way.  But all that was eons ago.

When I listen to music, I don’t have technical reference points in my head.  And when I hear a piece for the first time, I often get no further than marveling at the impassioned act of creation going on before my ears and—if I’m lucky enough to attend a live performance—my eyes.

To be alert to new discoveries, I work hard to keep my ears open.  I endorse—and mostly follow—Dylan Mattingly’s admonishment to “make an effort to listen to as much new music as possible, listen to it loud (because music is meant to be heard!), and listen to it multiple times” (though probably I don’t listen at quite the volume he’d prescribe).

At the same time, life is short.  I’ll admit that, if I don’t find at least some points of resonance on the first or second hearing, the piece may not be one I reach for again.  (In the interest of full disclosure, Helmut Lachenmann and total serialism are well into that category for me.)

Then there are those pieces (and they are legion) that tempt me back in time, like Ravel’s La Valse.  Listening to La Valse was, for me, a bit like Odysseus and his Sirens.  All I wanted to do for a while was listen to Ravel and more Ravel . . . and maybe just one more wee helping of La Valse, please?

But I know, if I’m to keep my ears open, I mustn’t rest on my listening laurels.  So I tied myself to the mast and headed into unknown musical territory once again.  At just that moment, Lucy, a/k/a @SpiritManager, put out this tweet:

I knew the name Harry Partch, though only just.  The other composer, Toby Twining, was entirely new to me.  There was a third name I did know:  Dylan Mattingly, the guest presenter.  OK, I thought, Contemporaneous, the ensemble for which he and David Bloom are co-artistic directors, hasn’t steered me wrong yet in their music picks, so I’ll give it a try.

Twining’s work, it transpired, was incidental music for playwright Sarah Ruhl’s retelling of the myth Orpheus and Eurydice.  (That’s the myth that gives Faustian effect to the phrase “backward glance.”)  In the myth, Orpheus goes to fetch his dead mate, Eurydice, from Hades.  The deal is she can follow him out, but he can’t look back until they pass through the border to upper earth.  Here’s Ovid on what happens next:
      He started out upon the soundless path
that rises steeply through dense fog and darkness
until they had come almost to the border
of the upper earth; here Orpheus, afraid
that she would fail him, and desiring
a glimpse of his beloved, turned to look:
at once, she slipped back to the underworld,
and he, because he wanted to embrace her
or be embraced by her, stretched out his arms—
but seized on nothing, that unlucky man,
unless it was the abnegating air.
Sarah Ruhl’s reimagining of the myth is lyrical and strange at once.  We first meet the young lovers on a beach.  She loves books; he loves music.  (He carries string in his pocket to repair broken instruments he comes across.)

He tries to help her clap out a rhythm, but she fails.
E:  I don’t need to know about rhythm.  I have my books.
O:  Don’t books have rhythm?
He writes a melody for her, but requires twelve instruments to play her the whole song.
O:  I’m going to make each strand of your hair into an instrument.  Your hair will stand on end as it plays my music and become a hair orchestra.  It will fly you up into the sky.
E:  I don’t know if I want to be an instrument.
O: Why?
E:  Won’t I fall down when the song ends?
O:  That’s true.  But the clouds will be so moved by your music that they will fill up with water until they become heavy and you’ll sit on one and fall gently down to earth.  How about that?
Twining’s music for Eurydice is a remarkable blend of achingly beautiful passages for voice and cello intermixed with vocal acrobatics of a type I’ve not heard before.  In Playing in the Waves, cello and voice combine to create irrepressible rhythms.  The alto joins the mix, floating over the jazzy ground.  From there, the cello and voices weave a multi-rhythm soundscape that’s as captivating as it is complex.

Twining tells us that Playing the Waves is “centered on a tonic D-flat that is slightly higher than D-flat above middle C on the piano” and “colored with vocal harmonics and microtonal nuances.”  I loved discovering that, while Twining uses “microtonal nuances,” something I thought would jar my unaccustomed ear, the music is immediately accessible—and not only accessible, but utterly appealing.  Who knew?

In Ruhl’s play, as in the myth on which it’s based, happiness doesn’t last, for Eurydice falls down 600 stairs and lands in the underworld.  Twining’s phantasmagorical use of voice evokes exactly the feeling of tumbling down through space and time.  The music shifts, introducing, in A Dirge, a sweetly mournful theme, its text the unadorned letters E-U-R-Y-D-I-C-E.  “Of course,” Twining adds, “I had to put it in B-double-flat-minus to remember that I’m a living composer.”

Twining’s music slips easily between the surreal and the lyrical, as Ruhl’s text requires, and in The String Room, takes center stage.  On her arrival in the underworld, Eurydice discovers to her dismay that there are no rooms.  Her father, reunited with her in death, creates a room for her made entirely of string.  Ruhl gives only stage directions for the scene:  “He makes four walls and a door out of string.  Time passes.  It takes time to build a room out of string.”  Twining's choice of “the cello’s supple melodic strength” and wordless voice accompaniment portrays the father’s patient building to stunning effect.

Another piece starts with an old-fashioned bit of yodeling, not to mention close harmony back-up and a finger-snapping beat.  Twining’s Eurydice is chock full of magnificent aural adventures, but this tune was like nothing else on the CD.  As I listened and re-listened to Eurydice, I found I looked forward to the joyfulness of that track.

I wondered, in a story with a not-so-happy ending, what part it could have played.  Twining explains:
Originally in the play, this music lasted only ten seconds as Orpheus and Eurydice danced around to celebrate their decision to marry.  I developed it further for the CD and imagine it as music for the dance at their wedding.
One day, when the yodeling came on again, I started to count.  I don’t know enough to tell you whether the time signature is 3/4, 3/8, 6/8, or something else, but I could definitely count it out in threes.

The name of the piece is Yes! Yes! Yes!, and that’s what I say, too.  Twining calls it a “dance-based rhythm.”  I hope he won’t mind a lay listener’s take, but I do hear a waltz.

—for John Metcalf, who opened the door

<<< >>>

To hear Yes! Yes! Yes!, click here.  To hear other tracks from Eurydice, click here.
The beautifully supple voices on the CD belong to Eric Brenner—male soprano, Liz Filos—alto, Steven Bradshaw—tenor, Toby Twining—Baritone/alto, Mark Johnson—Bass.  The fine cellist is Floreta Shapiro.  The CD can be found at Cantaloupe Music.

Credits:  The photographs of the CD cover and the CD are mine.  The painting of Ulysses and the Sirens by John William Waterhouse (1891) can be found here.

The quotation from David Bloom was his brilliant reply when, to his suggestion that I write about a concert we'd both attended, I said I didn't have sufficient musical knowledge to write a review.  The quotation from Dylan Mattingly is in his eloquent brief: Why is New Music Relevant?  The image of Mattingly (left) and Bloom (right), is a still from video I took at a Contemporaneous concert. 

The quotation from Ovid is from The Metamorphoses by Ovid, translated by Charles Martin (New York:  Norton, 2004), Book 10, Orpheus and Eurydice.  The quotations from Ruhl’s Eurydice are from The Clean House and Other Plays by Sarah Ruhl (Theatre Communications Group, 2003, 2006).  The tweets are from Contemporaneous and Lucy, a/k/a @SpiritManager, as shown in the tweet images portrayed.

The quotations from Twining can be found at Toby Twining Music, in the description of Eurydice.  Caveat:  as I could find no symbols for musical notation that would work as text, I've taken my life in my hands and translated as best I could.  If anyone should identify an error, please let me know, and I'll correct it at once. 

Listening List

Firstly, I must direct you to George Wallace, at a fool in the forest, who has posted, with his usual humor and intelligence, his own priceless take on the subject of the waltz.  From the Muybridge waltzers that introduce the post to the Muppet video that concludes it, the post is an entertaining and informative read.  Bearing Valse Witness can be found here.

David Bloom,and Dylan Mattingly have generously come to my aid so that I might supply a list of compositions by living composers that use waltz-time, though not necessarily exclusively (and, for those who know about these things, don't necessarily meet any formal requirements for a waltz). 

John Adams
I am the Wife of Mao Tse-tung (excerpt, from Nixon in China)
Son of Chamber Symphony, mvt. 3
Short Ride in a Fast Machine

Melissa Dunphy
Loyalty over Judgment
I Don't Recall
(both from the Gonzales Cantata)

Fifth Veil
Sun Flood

Kyle Gann
Disklavier Study No. 1: Despotic Waltz (from Nude Rolling Down an Escalator)

Philip Glass
Violin Concerto No. 1: Movement III
String Quartet No. 5: Movement IV
Company, Parts 1 & 2
Etudes Nos. 3 & 7
Music in 12 Parts, Part 5

Elena Kats-Chernin
Naive Waltz
(Thanks to George Wallace for identifying this!)

Bear McCreary 

Marc Mellits
(You'll need to scroll down the list to find it, then click on excerpt.  What you'll actually hear is the entire piece, which is a delight.)

Chip Michael
Whim's Sickle Waltz

Steve Reich
Music for Eighteen Musicians

George Tsontakis

Toby Twining
Yes!  Yes!  Yes!

Dylan Mattingly also reported:  “Kyle Gann once said that the serialists thought if they put it in 3/4 people would forgive them. ‘It was their version of a backbeat.’”

Many thanks to Elaine Fine for noting her compositions to me and to David Bloom and Dylan Mattingly for identifying so many other interesting compositions.  Needless to say, they are in no way responsible for any errors I may have made in preparing the list.


Suze said...

I swear 'tweets' look like a different language to me.

Wish I could comment more intelligently on your erudite post but my ears have not been near as adventurous as yours so I am forced to simply allow your words to seap into my understanding.

Very nice to have you back from your retreat.

Anonymous said...

I will pop in with only a few remarks, though this post has set me spinning with ideas for one (or more) of my own that may never, or only at length, come to fruition:

1. Thanks very much for your link to my own little Waltz post. It is remarkable how your Ravel/Valse piece slotted in to things I was encountering from other directions, notably Schworske's marvelous Vienna book. (It deserves a post of its own, touching as it does on so much of this past Century.)

2. The music you point to here will keep my ears busy for quite some time, for which as always I thank you.

3. There's a long discussion to be had on the way the old Greek stories generally, and the Orpheus/Eurydice story in particular, simply Do Not Stop. We somehow need to acknowledge and wrestle with them in earnest every generation or so. Forget Romeo and Juliet: O & E are the Couple that keeps on giving.

4. By way of example, some footage from Long Beach Opera's watery staging of Ricky Ian Gordon's lovely version of "Orpheus and Eurydice" and, since you seem always receptive to these things, my thoughts on its 2010 revival.

Anonymous said...

Oh, yes, before I forget: Philip Glass' "Modern Love Waltz," performance by Branca Parlic.

Some might prefer Margaret Leng Tan performing the piece on dual toy pianos.

Mark Kerstetter said...

Reich's Music for 18 Musicians is in waltz time! I would never have noticed. The voices - like horses galloping - of Yes!Yes!Yes! were a pleasure to listen to. Thanks - love the way you write about music, but whatever you write about, it's always an adventure.

Friko said...

I couldn't access the music; I tried several times to get Yes, yes, yes.

Another of your wonderfully well researched and fantastically interesting posts. "That keeps you out of mischief".

We were watching the 1973 version of "The Orient Express" the other day - blimey, what a cast - and Beloved pipes up excitedly and delightedly " that's me ! That's us !

It seems his band played the film music by Richard Rodney Bennett, which is a waltz. Film music, nice and lush.

Maggie Asfahani Hajj said...

Although I am by no means a musical scholar, I do enjoy listening to new (to me) things, so thank you.

klahanie said...

Dear Susan,
As per usual, your posting is a most informative delight. I will readily admit that I'm not much in the know on the subject of 'waltz'.
You are increasing my knowledge and appreciation for various genres of music. I often have different types of music, playing in the background, to enhance the ambience of what I'm trying to write. Wonder what I'd ended up writing with a waltz playing in the background....I shall duly check out your listening list. Thank you, Susan.
With respect and kind wishes, Gary

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. what an amazing post - and with wonderful introductions to (to me) new musicians ..

When I do embark on my musical education .. I'll definitely start here .. and I so enjoy reading everyone's comments ...

Thanks so much .. Hilary

Britta said...

Dear Susan,
I am so impressed by your essay! Thank you! In the first third I thought: it is the same with literature, with difficult prose and poetry, how we get used to it (or not), how we understand after a while the composition, not only the content. Then - for a not musical educated person like me - it became more difficult. And I was glad about the quotation of David Bloom in the beginning: "You don’t have to review. Just respond." That's what I can. Just respond. And thank you for reviewing!

Susan Scheid said...

Suze: I hope you’ll forgive my speaking plainly, but I don’t buy it. You’re incredibly adventuresome in too many ways for musical adventures to be outside the bounds. I do hope you can find time to read Dylan Mattingly’s essay, but at the very least, I want to quote this to you:

"But I challenge you, anyone reading this who is afraid of any of the thousands of strands of new music that exist today, anyone who settles for Beethoven (because what could be better?), or who doesn’t listen to anything without words (because it’s boring and quiet), or who assumes that what you listen to is what you like: make an effort to listen to as much new music as possible, listen to it loud (because music is meant to be heard!), and listen to it multiple times. Some of it you will hate. But there are some works which you will find indescribably beautiful, being produced all over the world, all the time, which are so much more meaningful because they describe a time and place to which we can relate."

I suspect, from what I’ve learned of you, that the poignancy of Mattingly’s final line will get to you as it did me. Here it is: “Music is my optimal language, and I want it to express my world.” Believe me, Suze, when I tell you, these young composers are expressing our world, beautifully, imaginatively, thrillingly, oh, everythingly (how’s that for an adverb?). If you don’t like Yes! Yes! Yes!, then, as Mattingly urges us to do, just try something else.

George: Oh, are you ever right, that “O & E are the Couple that keeps on giving.” I’ve got Schorske ordered and can hardly wait. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our tandem waltz to new music and eagerly look forward to your next music post, on whatever topic you may choose.

Mark: I can tell you for sure you are definitely not alone on Reich’s piece. Since Dylan advised it’s in 3-4 time, I’ve gone back to listen and try to count it out several times. I never would have spotted it on my own. Re Twining, I love your association of the voices with galloping in Yes! Yes! Yes!

Friko: I am sorry you weren’t able to play Yes! Yes! Yes!, though goodness knows what you might have thought. On other fronts, now, of course, I’ve simply got to find and listen to the waltz from Orient Express—clearly not only a great cast, but a great set of musicians, no? (PS: eagerly awaiting arrival of the Leigh-Fermor books. Thanks for the tip!)

Maggi: Scholarship not required! I do hope that you find something to listen to that you enjoy.

Gary: It would be fun to know what would happen to your writing were you to be listening to a waltz. I suspect Penny, the Jack Russell dog and modest internet star, might have a field day with it.

Hilary: One day you’ll reveal to us, in one of your amazing and informative posts, what sort of music you listen to. I’m intensely curious to know!

Britta: Welcome back! I agree completely with your comparison to literature—and I know you speak from personal experience (am I remembering rightly that you tackled German expressionist like Georg Trakl?)! I’m so glad you appreciated that wonderful remark by David Bloom. He gives us all permission to try, doesn’t he, without the requirement of expertise.

To all the curious: don’t overlook out George Wallace’s links in his comments. The toy piano performance of Glass’s Modern Love Waltz is strangely marvelous (or some might say simply strange!).

David said...

Crikey, I never thought of Madame Mao's stunner as a waltz, but I suppose there can be martial 3/4 (surprising to learn that's the metre Strauss's mock-epic hero uses for battle in Ein Heldenleben).

Racking my brains for more, but Berio does a good waltz or two - one very eerie one stuck in my mind from his opera Un re in ascolto. And do take Turnage's Anna Nicole seriously - there are some very nostalgic/acid waltzes there.

Susan Scheid said...

David: Welcome back, and thank you for the additions to the list. (I do recall you commented on Turnage before--I guess I will just try to have to get over the hurdle of that subject matter . . .). And I see that, over at your place, there's a bit of waltzing going on, too!

Chip Michael said...

It's nice to see there are great musicians still interested in writing listen-able music, music that is still challenging to play, interesting to listen to and yet not so far removed from what we know (Beethoven, Debussy or Shostakovich) that we feel compelled to study the score for years before we can appreciate the musicality of it. From Glass to Wallace, these waltzes are lovely.

Susan Scheid said...

Chip: I'm pleased indeed that you happened to post a new waltz of your own that I could add to the list, and thank you so much for the wonderful comment!

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