Please enjoy a sneak-peak at this weekend’s program notes, from our brilliant and poetic resident musicologist, Kathryn Allwine Bacasmot and fabulous and dynamic composer, Mehmet Ali Sanlikol:
This is your shovel. The music is your earth. Dig in.
To petition and aspire, when we wake and when we sleep, what bubbles up from the deepest wellsprings of the soul? Exploration, through languages visible and invisible, into the mystical—the “mysteries that transcend ordinary human knowledge”; sustaining intimacy with one’s spirit, facilitating renewal of one’s resolve, and imparting the ability to play by heart through our dreams and prayers.
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) :: O ignis spiritus paracliti
From the age of five, Hildegard von Bingen saw gloriously vivid visions, but it wasn’t until the age of forty-three that she began documenting them, and then channeling their ecstatic energy into music. By that time, Hildegard was abbess at the Benedictine monastery Disibodenberg, which had been her physical and spiritual home from the tender age of eight, when her family dedicated her to the service of the church.
The monastic life builds the rhythm of a day around the Divine Offices; daily services taking place at designated hours. Sequences (from the Latin, sequentia, “following”) were elaborations of spiritual texts sung between the Alleluia and Gospel. Originally, the last syllable of “Alleluia” was simply melodically prolonged, like a wordless ribbon extending, twisting, and trailing, in order to give more time for processions occurring during services. Eventually poetic text pertaining to the service was added with specific accompanying melodies, and sequences proliferated into the thousands (the Church subsequently trimmed things down into a handful of approved sequences, one of which, the Dies Irae, is well-known to many classical concert goers as the sequence occurring in the Requiem mass).
What is striking about this sequence, and indeed all of Hildegard’s music, is how elaborate it is in relation to most of the Gregorian chant being sung during her time—an early example of sheer artistic expression marrying form and function. Her music is often noted for the soaring lines, the intervallic leaps, and the melodic movement that is more angular than stepwise. The visions, which she experienced her whole life, were often centered around earthly elements of fire, water, and wind, and the texts to her compositions are preoccupied with expressing the spiritual with nature imagery—particularly the blazing light of flames, which is associated with the Holy Spirit.
O ignis spiritus paracliti, written to honor the Holy Spirit, begins with the following text:
O spirit of fire, bringer of comfort,
Life of the life of every creature,
You are holy, giving life to forms.
You are holy,
anointing those perilously broken;
you are holy,
cleansing foul wounds.
O breath of holiness,
O fire of love,
O sweet savor in our breasts,
infusing hearts with the scent of virtue.
Osvoldo Golijov (b.1960) :: Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind
Osvoldo Golijov is a composer whose music goes beyond borders of culture and style to meet a globalized world—roots spreading into intermingling branches. Following is his commentary on Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind.
“Eight centuries ago Isaac The Blind, the great kabbalist rabbi of Provence, dictated a manuscript in which he asserted that all things and events in the universe are product of combinations of the Hebrew alphabet’s letters: ‘Their root is in a name, for the letters are like branches, which appear in the manner of flickering flames, mobile, and nevertheless linked to the coal’.
“Isaac’s lifelong devotion to his art is as striking as that of string quartets and klezmer musicians. In their search for something that arises from tangible elements but transcends them, they are all reaching a state of communion.
“The movements of this work sound to me as if written in three of the different languages spoken by the Jewish people throughout our history. This somehow reflects the composition’s epic nature. I hear the prelude and the first movement, the most ancient, in Arameic; the second movement is in Yiddish, the rich and fragile language of a long exile; the third movement and postlude are in sacred Hebrew.
“The prelude and the first movement simultaneously explore two prayers in different ways: The quartet plays the first part of the central prayer of the High Holidays, ‘We will observe the mighty holiness of this day…’, while the clarinet dreams the motifs from ‘Our Father, Our King’. The second movement is based on ‘The Old Klezmer Band’, a traditional dance tune, which is surrounded here by contrasting manifestations of its own halo. The third movement was written before all the others. It is an instrumental version of K’Vakarat, a work that I wrote a few years ago for Kronos and Cantor Misha Alexandrovich. The meaning of the word klezmer: instrument of song, becomes clear when one hears David Krakauer’s interpretation of the cantor’s line. This movement, together with the postlude, bring to conclusion the prayer left open in the first movement: ‘…Thou pass and record, count and visit, every living soul, appointing the measure of every creature’s life and decreeing its destiny’.
“But blindness is as important in this work as dreaming and praying. I had always the intuition that, in order to achieve the highest possible intensity in a performance, musicians should play, metaphorically speaking, ‘blind’. That is why, I think, all legendary bards in cultures around the world, starting with Homer, are said to be blind. ‘Blindness’ is probably the secret of great string quartets, those who don’t need their eyes to communicate among them, with the music, or the audience. My hommage to all of them and Isaac of Provence is this work for blind musicians, so they can play it by heart. Blindness, then, reminded me of how to compose music as it was in the beginning: An art that springs from and relies on our ability to sing and hear, with the power to build castles of sound in our memories.”
Mehmet Ali Sanlikol :: Vecd
Vecd (wajd in Arabic) refers to being in a state of rapture or ecstasy. In Islamic mysticism Sufi dervishes would try to attain the state of vecd during their ceremonies in which music plays a central role. Since vecd is the essence of sufi ceremonies in this composition I have tried to capture the essence of several different kinds of Turkish sufi ceremonies. When doing this I refrained from incorporating the sophisticated modal characteristics (or the so-called “microtones”) of Turkish Sufi and Ottoman/Turkish classical music since this piece was being composed for a Western string orchestra. Instead, I decided to base the composition on zikir, the practice of singing repeated rhythmic phrases by Sufi dervishes. Typically, Turkish sufi ceremonies would feature one ostinato in a simpler meter and would speed this ostinato up throughout the course of 5 to 10 minutes, if not more. During the speeding up of the ostinato often a hafız (Koranic chanter) would improvise on top of the ostinato using devotional poetry. In this composition instead of using a single ostinato in a simple meter I used multiple rhythmic cycles ranging from 16 beats per measure to 4 beats per measure. The melodic phrases which develop throughout the piece replace improvisation and these phrases together with the ostinati resemble another kind of Turkish Sufi ceremony: the Sema ceremony of the Mevlevi (whirling) dervishes.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) :: Heiliger Dankgesang, from Quartet op. 132
Beethoven’s “Holy Song of Thanks by a Convalescent to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode” (Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lycischen Tonart) is the expansive middle movement of the String Quartet op. 132 (completed in 1825), part of the so-called “Galitzen Quartets” (including opp. 127 and 130) for their commission by Prince Nikolas Galitzen. Proportionally, it is nearly the length of the first two movements combined, and is twice as long as the two movements following. Structurally, it is divided into five distinct parts (perhaps a microcosmic reflection of the Quartet’s five total movements) alternating the three hymn-like “holy song of thanks” (Heiliger Dankgesang) sections with the shimmering melodic lightness of the two “feeling new strength” (Neue Kraft fühlend) sections, forming a set of double variations as each repeats with increasing elaboration. Emotionally, the overt purpose as a song of thanks likely refers to Beethoven’s recovery from an abdominal illness, and perhaps also (as suggested by Maynard Solomon) the general idea of the healing powers of music for a beleaguered spirit. After all, in times of celebration or distress, we inevitably turn to music. Framing our emotions, it gathers the invisible murmurings of our hearts for contemplation; facilitating release, strengthening our resolve, imbuing hope.
What immediately confronts the listener is an opening gesture that expands and contracts like a quiet breath, which is strikingly similar in shape to two other seminal works written within a year or two of each other that and crowned the last three years of the composer’s life: the Adagio from the Symphony no. 9, and the String Quartet op. 130. The Heiliger Dankgesang commences reverently in one of the old church modes, Lydian, which, according to Renaissance music theorist Zarlino, “…is a remedy for fatigue of the soul, and similarly for that of the body.” There is very little dissonance in the first iteration, lending to the floating, otherworldly quality of its sound. Then, with three declamatory unisons that take grasp the listener as if to say, “pay special attention here,” the work shifts in D Major for the first of the two Neue Kraft fühlend sections. Beethoven tends to use trills as a kind of asterisk noting an important shift, and here, the first violin trembles with the onset of joy. Each subsequent restatement of the Heiliger Dankgesang and Neue Kraft fühlend gain confidence, strength, and resolve: passion, via dissonance and resolution, is infused into the Heiliger Dankgesang, whilst the intervallic jumps and increasingly intricate weaving in and out of the two violin parts instills the second Neue Kraft fühlend with enhanced exuberance. Finally, the work concludes with stabbing sforzandos as if pledging to go forward with conviction and purpose buoyed by spiritual and physical renewal.