Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tales of a Spanish cellist

Once in a while, I find novels that interact with music in some non-trivial way. My most recent example is The Spanish Bow, a debut novel by Andromeda Romano-Lax. This exotically named author was born in Chicago and currently resides in Alaska. She has been a journalist, and she plays the cello, as does the primary character of her novel. Her Flash-based web site deals exclusively with the novel, and provides maps and other additional background information.

The novel follows the protagonist, Feliu Delargo, from his birth in 1892 through the start of World War II. Drawn to the cello at an early age, he becomes one of Spain's most famous musicians, and his life intertwines with the various rulers, from royalty to Franco. At times, the novel felt like the episodes in Zelig or Forrest Gump where the fictional characters are inserted into historical events, such as the sole meeting between Hitler and Franco, which took place in 1940. But Romano-Lax's choice to put Delargo in the early 20th century lets her use her cellist to examine a time and place of great historical changes, from the failing monarchy and restoration, to the republic, the civil war, and fascism.

A major theme of the novel is the role of art in relation to politics. Feliu is exposed to the dilemma early on, when he is a court musician for Queen Ena. His patron, a count with surprising anti-monarchial sentiments, raises the question of the artist in relation to his world. Feliu's musical partner, the pianist Justo Al-Cerraz, generally takes the position that music and politics are completely distinct. Although Feliu also has this perspective in his youth, his experiences and his memories of his childhood in a small village end up making it hard to separate the two. These were turbulent times, and events catch up with Feliu and Al-Cerraz as they reach maturity. Needless to say, their views become muddied by circumstances, and a retrospective look back at the end of the book doesn't provide any clear answers either.

Of course, there's a love story in the plot as well, with both Al-Cerraz and Feliu courting a young Jewish violinist as they all travel across Europe playing in a trio. If the plot sometimes displays a few clichés, the settings are vivid, and the story moves right along. The historical personages provide an interesting spice, and several times I found recordings of the various musical pieces featured in the book. All in all, The Spanish Bow is an entertaining read.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Music from Comala

Last October, I selected a piano challenge: to learn a new piano work that had not yet been recorded. Blogger Hugh Sung had an article about Charles Griffin, a New York expat currently living in Latvia. I visited Griffin's website and found a short piece entitled Murmuring in Comala, commissioned by pianist Ana Cervantes as part of a project to honor the Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo. Rulfo's sole novel, Pedro Páramo (1955), is hailed as a precursor for the magical realism, such as Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). Although Cervantes has now released a CD containing some of the pieces (including Griffin's), it wasn't available when I started my own work.

Pedro Páramo is surreal in every respect, and there's not a whole lot of realism, magical or otherwise, to get in the way. The book opens in the first person, with the narrator returning to the village of his mother's youth as a fulfillment of her dying request, specifically to seek out his father, Pedro Páramo, and to collect "what he owes us." But the town is now literally a ghost town, inhabited only by phantoms whose murmurings eventually cause the initial narrator to die from fear about half way through the novel. Brief sections scattered throughout outline the story of an unscrupulous Páramo's rise from poverty to become the largest landowner in the village. First person narration eventually returns, but now it belongs to Susana San Juan, Páramo's last wife, after Páramo sent her father to his death in the mines.

But whatever plot may be present in Pedro Páramo, it's up to the reader to piece it all together, as the novel passes through an array of voices, perspectives and timeframes. Griffin's piece is an interesting commentary on the novel, perhaps not quite program music, but enough for the novel to provide interpretive clues about the music.

Murmuring in Comala revolves around almost a blues riff, a four-bar melody, in the key of A minor for all practical purposes. As one might expect from such a riff, it's set against a walking bass line, except here the bass and the riff are off balance, in a cross rhythm, two against three. The walking notes are seldom in the same key as the riff, sometimes slightly off, sometimes quite distant. The jarring effect becomes more pronounced as the piece progresses, with the riff moving through a variety of key centers, phrase lengths, and shifting modes, and changing hands. Like Rulfo's characters (or like his reader), nothing ever lines up exactly, or quite comes together.

Griffin's program note highlights the ghostly voices and the multidirectional nature of time, both in the novel and in music. I also hear the riff as the eternal purgatory in which the novel's characters all find themselves, not alive but not quite dead either. Salvation eludes them, as the local priest refuses to absolve or bless them, and they wander forever. Griffin's riff rarely harmonizes with the walking figure, leaving the music restless and unsettled, like Rulfo's ghosts. His skewed tonality never permits the theme to find a resting point. The harmony at the "cadences" couldn't be further apart.

Cervantes' performance of Griffin's Murmuring in Comala isn't available from any of the usual online vendors, but there is a Cervantes live performance on Youtube. In addition, his other solo piano work, Vernacular Dances, is on Teresa McCollough's album of New American Piano music, available both at emusic and iTunes. Griffin has an mp3 storefront on his site, where one can also view the Cervantes video, read program notes, and find links to buy his scores.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Altered Realities

In the early days, soundscape music rested primarily in the hands of keyboard players, until Robert Fripp and Brian Eno combined Fripp's guitar with Eno's tape delays and other effects in a couple of classic albums from the early 1970s. Eno went on to work with pianist and composer Harold Budd. Their albums are legendary, comprising Eno's live processing of Budd's piano improvisations, as well as Budd's improvisations with Eno's treatments. Meanwhile, Fripp has developed a healthy side career with his guitar-based soundscapes, and now, thirty years later, it is becoming almost commonplace for guitarists to produce peaceful and serene soundscapes. In almost all cases, it is the electric guitar that provides the source for this music. The electric guitar lends itself to extremes of subsequent processing, and in the hands of artists like Christian Fennesz, the results are barely recognizable as having originated from the guitar. The acoustic guitar's role has primarily been restricted to either new age melodies, of the type associated with the Windham Hill label, or more eclectic but still unprocessed sounds perhaps typical of John Fahey.

A recent release by Istanbul's Erdem Helvacioğlu entitled Altered Realities comfortably sits between these two extremes. Helvacioğlu's previous solo album, A Walk Through the Bazaar, appeared on Chicago's Locust label a few years ago as part of a series of field recordings. It contained two versions of field recordings in Istanbul, raw and treated into a dark dance remix. He is the guitarist for a Turkish post-punk band, Rashit, and he has also won prizes for his electroacoustic compositions. This album shows a completely different side of Helvacioğlu's music, consisting entirely of live, improvised, solo acoustic guitar with live processing (consisting of a TC Electronic FireworX effects box, a Behringer midi foot pedal, and the software AudioMulch. Its gentle and serene character recalls Budd and Eno's work, with perhaps a little more edge (and without Budd's occasionally cloying melodies).

Altered Realities contains seven tracks, all around seven-eight minutes long. The Budd comparison is most apt on the opening track, Bridge to Horizon, where the bucolic melodies set the peaceful drifting tone for the album. Some of his guitar pieces in their raw form, such as Frozen Resophonic, could easily sit alongside works of Michael Hedges, but the real-time processing completely transforms the piece, softening its edges. The treatments can take on a life of their own, as in Sliding on a Glacier where the single notes are sent off into the ether, or Dreaming on a Blind Saddle's distinct, complex gestures. There's an extended section of Shadow my Dovetail where the effects really take on a life of their own, accompanying the guitar whose counterpoint is now something completely different. The album closes with the ominous and theatrical Ebony Remains, which includes the only passage of nearly untreated guitar.

Helvacioğlu plays a lot of different slow arpeggiated patterns whose harmony lingers, recurs, and slowly decays while the music slowly transforms into the next development. His guitar playing throughout is generally delicate, using occasional sharper attacks to create more percussive textures. Altered Realities encourages a quiet drifting state, but listening in close detail is equally rewarding. The album's release on the New Albion label, generally associated with the fringes of contemporary classical music, emphasizes its unique musical vision, somewhere between standardized genres. After the field recordings, electroacoustica and rock, it will be interesting to see where Helvacioğlu goes next.

Altered Realities is available directly from New Albion, from fine record stores, as well as from iTunes and emusic.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Labor Day Canyon Blogging

It's starting to cool off in southern Arizona, with relatively few days in triple digit heat (unlike Phoenix, which has been setting heat records lately). So, off to the mountains again, this time to Seven Falls, a gorgeous spot up Bear Canyon in the Catalina Mountains. The pools make for great swimming holes, fairly deep with cool water. There are a couple of people just in the shade at the right of the picture (I was on the other side of the canyon on the approach), so you can get an idea of the scale.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Harmony in the blogosphere

Scott Spiegelberg at Musical Perceptions and James Cook at Mathemusicality have started a discussion about tonality and harmony, where, to oversimplify, Scott is in favor of chord progressions and James takes more of a voice-leading approach. The discussion continues here (James) and here (Scott). I've never understood tonality, and reading these posts, I see that even the experts don't understand tonality either, at least not in any kind of consistent way. I'm learning a lot from the discussion, but Heather at In the Wings has a serendipitous perspective on the harmony in Brahms that touches on my ambivalence towards tonality.

In my case, very little of the music I listen to, or perform, is tonal. Electronic music gets its tension and release from changing textures and timbres. Most contemporary classical music isn't really tonal either, but even in the tonal pieces that I play (for example, some of Mompou's Cancion y danzas), I can identify the cadences, but not the chords in the middle.

So why am I interested in harmonic theory? I have a number of books that recommend harmonic analysis as a memory aid (and Heather's post alludes to this aspect). And that's ok, as far as it goes. But in late romantic and newer music, does anybody ever listen for these kinds of harmonic progressions? A former piano teacher claimed that he could hear the key shifts in symphonic music, but such skills are beyond me. When I played pop songs on the guitar, I would try to figure out the chords from recordings, but I'm not learning classical music that way. After all, I have the sheet music in front of me. If I'm playing jazz, then it's important to know the harmonic underpinnings of a song so I have a pitch set, and perhaps some intervals, to use in the improvised line. But eventually even jazz pianists take such liberties with the harmony that we get some pretty strange chords (I have one book that shows a B-flat seventh flat ninth flat fifth, or a G major 13th sharp ninth — I mean, really). It would be different if I played much music from the period where tonality was strongest, such as Mozart and Beethoven, but I've never cared that much for the classical period (this kept me out of music school in my younger days). The memory aids that I need for Ravel, Cage and Takemitsu really have nothing to do with their harmonies, and more with what James Tenney, in his wonderful book Meta + Hodos, calls "clangs," sound gestures with several defining parameters. I'm still interested in learning more about harmony, yet another of my extended projects….