Thursday, July 16, 2009

Summer psalms

One of my smaller summer projects is a commission for a pair of hymns in Swedish, of all languages. No, I don't speak a word of it. The basic grammar is similar to English and German, and the verbs are familiar enough if you know something about the pronunciation, but adjectives are almost always unintelligible – which makes it hard to tell if that reviewer in the Swedish-language daily liked your piece or not.

Nonetheless, I'm wading in as best I can. The source texts, which I chose from a small selection given to me, are psalms from a newish translation of the Bible. As best I can tell, it seems to be one of those modern, plain-language versions that treats the texts less as poetry and more as document. It's so far creating problems with meter and flow, trying to create a simple, single-idea musical world that both keeps the words as clear as possible and, more difficult, illuminates them through a setting that's more than just functional. The excerpts I'm working from also don't contain an "Alleluia!" or "Amen!" to work towards as structural goals, so I'm having to get creative in the treatment of the lines to create a form that works.

It's a completely different way of working with text for me, top-down, as it were. Usually when I set a text in a choral piece, it's because I had a flash of music for it the first time I read it. In fact, I find it very difficult to approach words that aren't backed up by that spontaneous feeling of just how I want to treat them. The add wrinkle of setting explicitly Judeo-Christian words has me at a bit of a loss in the sincerity department. So for inspiration, I've been turning to what is probably my favorite collection of psalm settings ever, by the Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek.

Kreek is a much beloved figure in Estonian choral music, a Bartók-like composer/musicologist who painstakingly collected and documented hundreds upon hundreds of his homeland's folk tunes, with a special emphasis on religious folk melodies, which formed the basis for his own arrangements and original settings. His Psalms of David (Taaveti Laulud) were encountered early in my tenure in Finland, when I joined a tour of Germany with the Sibelius Academy chamber choir. The music was all Finno-Ugric, and in addition to current godfather of Estonian choral composition, Veljo Tormis, four of Kreek's psalms were on the program. I'd never heard of him or his work, but immediately fell in love with his settings, all the while trying to get my tongue around the language.

The tunes, while modal, aren't specifically or self-consciously "folky". The harmonies tend toward diatonicism, but the various pedals and held-note textures create a web of gentle dissonance that creates interest without drawing attention to itself. The unusual emphasis on the low end of the choral tessitura is a marked feature of Kreek's choral music, featuring multiple divisi rather than the standard SATB configuration, no doubt to take advantage of those wondrous, dark Estonian alto and bass voices, for which their national choral sound is justly famous. The sopranos tend to be added only for a bit of brightness here and there, with the main weight of the music placed in the middle and low registers. The female voices are frequently silent or limited to the melody, with the divided men's choir providing a rich harmonic palette.

There's also the way his tunes wend their way through the often-asymmetrical rhythms of Estonian so naturally, fitting the cadence of the words like a glove, treating them polyphonically, but allowing the tutti choir to alight in unison on the most meaningful words, highlighting their significance in the structure. (It must be said that Estonian is a singularly singable language once you get past the vowels, much more so than Swedish, with its general thinness of hard consonants for rhythmic emphasis. Ever heard Estonian bossa nova? Now that's a treat.) Above all, the object lesson for me is the way Kreek's settings seem to exhale the entire text in a single breath, one long melodic gesture that carries the words along to their conclusion, no matter the rhythmic hiccups. It's deep, expressive, moving music. If I manage to reach that level of simplicity and directness, I'll consider it a job well done.

Judging by the collection of performance videos on YouTube, these songs have acquired a viral popularity in the choral world despite the hurdle of an obscure and difficult language, which speaks loudly to their musical merit. Therefore, I humbly offer some psalms for your summer morning before I go make omelettes:


The King's Singers, doing their best with the pronunciation:

And the one piece that makes me cry without fail:

Monday, July 6, 2009

So's yer face!

I've been having a brief read through at the (un?)intentionally hilarious new site that got the classical critics so exercised this past weekend, I won't bother linking because I don't need the grief. I don't intend to spend much time on this, but it's the type of site that attracts my attention as one who seeks greater tolerance in most aspects of life. Suffice it to say, if it's for real, it's run by the type of person I went on about in this post a few months ago. It's already drawn responses from the Guardian's Tom Service and WaPo's Anne Midgette. Although I sympathize with musoc's point about a greater need in modern society for silence, or at least freedom from musical noise pollution, the greater part of the site reads like the mission statements of any other high-culture jihadist, and basically comes down to "Anything I don't like is illegitimate." I'd love to take the time to refute their points one by one, but I'll leave that for someone who doesn't have a fussy baby in the background. Anyway, as we learned soon after starting this blog, trying to engage people with a mindset like this usually just gets our intelligence questioned or generates responses only slightly more mature than, "I know you are, but what am I?" Case in point:

As Midgette expediently points out, 'classical' music (to use her preferred anti-elitist terminology) is "responsible, like any field, for some singularly vapid outpourings."

How very true!

Now if you'll excuse me, I have another wailing infant to deal with.

UPDATE: One of the reasons I didn't bother addressing their points is that 'musoc' was obvious Sohothedog bait. I'm pleased to see Matthew Guerrieri – who's wicked smaht, and way more articulate than me anyway – enter the breach and prove my intuition right. You get the feeling he wrote it while cooking a seven-course meal and analyzing the recession, too.

Friday, July 3, 2009

"Leaves" now online

Here's a link to the radio broadcast of my Leaves of Grass, played last weekend by Risto-Matti Marin, followed by August Stradal's transcription of Liszt's Les Préludes. (Click the link, then "Avaa radiosoitin" on the next page.) It takes a few minutes to get through the preamble, but while waiting you can bear witness to the rare event of me doing an interview in Finnish. I'm the guy with the accent.

Performance order for Leaves:

Book I (2005)
- Tears
- Lingering last drops
- Sparkles from the Wheel
- Twilight

Book II (2009, premiere)
- The voice of the rain
- On the beach at night
- A noiseless patient spider
- Thou orb aloft full-dazzling

Book III (2009, premiere)
- Out of the rolling ocean
- Apparitions
- Song of the universal
- A clear midnight

Enjoy! I'm on thesis retreat for the next two months, which I'm actually looking forward to. Too many notes this year, and a break is much needed. Blogging will continue, don't be surprised if the topic is frequently Mahler.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

La Patrie

It's Canada Day today, an event I notice less and less as the years go by, unless I happen to be there at the time, or until one of my conscientious Finnish friends texts me with wishes for the holiday. I don't do much to celebrate it here – although we did dress Oliver in red and white today as a tribute, even though we haven't begun the long, onerous process of acquiring Canadian citizenship for him yet.

I bring this up as a segue to a topic that's been much on my mind in the last few weeks. More and more people have been asking me lately if I miss Canada, and whether I plan to go back there someday. I suppose it's because people see me putting down roots in Finland, developing something of a career, having a family. The latter question, about my possible return to my homeland, isn't something I can answer at this point. It's not in the cards at the moment, but it's not possible to rule it out, either. But I always answer the former with a smile and a "Not really." And it's true for the most part. I get to see my immediate relatives once every couple of years at the most, and we correspond via e-mail and Skype regularly, so the contact is there. I left Canada so long ago, almost fifteen years now, that I have very few friends there, and no professional contacts to speak of. Everything that's most important to me – my work, my wife and son, my closest friends – is here. The weather in Finland is more or less the same as where I grew up in Québec's Eastern Townships, and though I miss certain things, like real Asian cuisine at affordable prices and beer that doesn't taste like gym socks, on the whole I don't miss Canada all that much.

The thing I don't usually tell people about is the rare occasion when I do find myself missing it, in a way that cuts much deeper than simple nostalgia for bygone things. The most desperate occasion relates to the final stages of composing my four-seasons choral cycle Shiki for HOL in 2006-07. It was in late February of a dark winter, toward the end of an extraordinarily busy season of writing, teaching, and festival management. I was already worn out, and was trying to finish the four tape preludes to each setting of a seasonal haiku by Santōka Taneda. The preludes are very simple, almost documentary-sounding concoctions using only three elements each: the sound of water, a field recording of birdsong, and a lightly processed acoustic sound from a variety of metal instruments like a waterphone, a prayer bowl and a Christmas angel bell thing owned by my wife's uncle.

For the birdsong, I used a species local to southern Finland at the start of each season: blackbird for spring, thrush nightingale for summer, hooded crow for fall, and Bohemian waxwing for winter. I wanted them to sound as local as possible, with one exception. I found an old LP fragment of the wail of a common loon, and decided to adapt it to fit in the background of the fall prelude. It was intended as a kind of private joke, a tiny, wistful reference to my fervent belief that one's national identity can't ever be fully suppressed, no matter how one may thrive in a new pot.

The loon's wail is a haunting thing, speaking of still, misty lakes and vast spaces, a sound most Canadians are familiar with from birth or soon after. It's not that they're everywhere, it's just that the wail has become something of an anthropomorphized sonic currency (as opposed to the literal one), a patrotic emblem of the sound of Canada, heard everywhere in NFB films and mini-documentary ads about Canadian heritage. When I was a kid in the 70s, there was a fashion on CBC radio for long, static nature soundscapes – I think my fascination with nature imagery and structural stasis can be traced back to these – many of them inevitably containing a loon wail, that ever-so-evocative aural calling card of the True North. So I messed around with the sound file, adjusting the EQ, copying and reshaping the sound; there were only a couple of wails, with the ultimate effect of the constant pitch shifting and elongation to create diversity of material making it appear as if the call were being warped, becoming more distant and alien to the sonic landscape.

What I wasn't prepared for was the effect my semi-casual compositional decision would have on me psychologically. When I uploaded the sound into ProTools the first time, it hit me like a sword through the ribs, making me more homesick than I'd been in years. That forlorn-sounding wail engendered a bone-deep feeling of loss that had nothing to do with childhood or a long forgotten meal or seeing old photos of family. Or rather, it had everything to do with it, and nothing at the same time. The loon's call, despite being just a bird call, and in reality no more expressive in human terms than a tree or a blade of grass, a thing that just was, sounded like everything that was most Canadian to me, and in an instant I felt more alone, further from home and more alien in my adopted land than I ever had before. I keep trying to come up with a less melodramatic turn of phrase, but the truth is that my soul ached for my country in a way I have difficulty overcoming even as I write about it two years later. I sat there, alone in that darkened studio, tired, stressed, embarrassed at my tears and relieved that nobody was there to see them. They were brief, in any case.

I write this just to make a small point about how sonic memory strikes at the most unexpected times, and carries with it a sometimes overwhelming weight of associations. It also forms the core of what I'm writing about in reference to Mahler, the ways in which landscape and social memory are manipulated into anthropomorphized beings, and the effort it requires to see past that to the truth of the human-nature relationship. A bird's call, through the careful manipulation of memory, upbringing and national sentiment, can cut through distance and years in a second, reconnecting one to a lost past, a wealth of feelings long suppressed, and undermine one's very notion of self and place. I've since come to love living in Finland more and more, and rarely if ever have those pangs of homesickness, since my home is here in an increasingly real sense. But one's ultimate sense of home can never quite be done away with, and reasserts itself at the strangest times, as I discovered.

So do I miss Canada? No, not really. Except when I do. Happy Canada Day.