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.)
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:
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 pathSarah 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.)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
Loyalty over Judgment
I Don't Recall
(both from the Gonzales Cantata)
Disklavier Study No. 1: Despotic Waltz (from Nude Rolling Down an Escalator)
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
(Thanks to George Wallace for identifying this!)
(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.)
Whim's Sickle Waltz
Music for Eighteen Musicians
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.