Carmen Returns Program Notes


A Short History of the Universe (as related by Nima Arkani-Hamed), 2013
by Derek Bermel (b. 1967, New York)

During my tenure at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, I have attended several lectures on the subject of space-time, gravity, and the multiverse by the renowned theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed. Nima’s talks — always expansive, extroverted, and inspiring — describe phenomena at both tiny and enormous ends of the cosmic scale. His depictions (and diagrams) of gravity are exciting and dynamic, and I wondered how they might be expressed in musical terms. As I had been discussing with the phenomenal JACK quartet the possibility of writing a clarinet quintet for them + me, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Inspired by Nima’s powerful sense of cosmological narrative, A Short History of the Universe presents musical depictions of our constant companion gravity, expressed both horizontally (in time, i.e. duration/speed) and vertically (in space, i.e. pitch/contour). Glissandi on the clarinet and in the strings spring away from and bounce back to the original notes. By exploring various ways of stretching and compacting, or “curving” musical spacetime, I hope to evince a sort of general relativity for the ears.

A Short History of the Universe (as related by Nima Arkani-Hamed) was commissioned by Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts for premiere performance on January 11, 2013 at the Barns at Wolf Trap.

-Program note by Derek Bermel

Fratres (“Brethren”), 1977
by Arvo Pärt (b. Paide, Estonia, 1935)

It has always been difficult enough for a composer living anywhere to go against the grain and write music that breaks openly with received tradition. But it was doubly difficult to do so in the former Soviet Union, where artistic dissent was more often than not perceived as synonymous with political dissidence. And it was probably ten times more difficult for a composer such as Arvo Pärt, who, in addition to his unconventional writing, was known as a committed Russian Orthodox at a time when all forms of religion were strongly discouraged. In his early works, Pärt employed techniques of serialism, highly controversial at the time, only to turn away from them just as serialism was becoming more generally accepted. Pärt has always followed his own path, which led him, after exploring serialism, chance and collage techniques as well as minimalism, to the discovery of an intensely personal voice in the early 1970s.

Pärt himself has referred to the style of his works written since the ’70s as the ‟tintinnabuli” style, from the Latin word for bells. The term implies not only the frequent use of bells and bell-like sonorities, but also the preponderance of triadic sounds, employed in a way not unlike chimes playing the natural intervals octave, fifth and third. Unlike consonances in classical music, those found in Pärt’s works do not form typical harmonic progressions and rarely modulate; they remain what they are, bell-like sounds in the service of an artistic message whose spiritual nature is impossible to miss. Pärt’s “tintinnabuli” style creatively combines the medieval principle of note-against-note organum and classical triadic harmony; the result is music of extreme structural simplicity that at the same time exhibits great spiritual depth.

Pärt commented on this style in a statement quoted in Paul Hillier’s book on the composer:

I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements—with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials—with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of the triad are like bells. And that is why I called it tintinnabulation.

Fratres, which has become one of Pärt’s signature pieces, exists in numerous versions, including arrangements for violin, cello, and string quartet. One of his earliest compositions written in the “tintinnabuli” style, it is based on recurrent harmonic progressions and rhythmic cycles that are reminiscent of the technique of 14th-century isorhythmic motets: a certain sequence of rhythmic units arranged in successive groups of 7/4, 9/4 and 11/4 measures, serves as the structural backbone of the piece. Each repeat is modified in some way, so that the work becomes something like a set of variations of the chaconne or passacaglia type, unfolding over a constant drone of a perfect fifth. In the violin version, the solo instrument surrounds the chord progression with a stream of virtuosic figurations that stop and start again to create a dramatic alternation of moods within the unchanging harmonic framework of the piece.

-Program note by Peter Laki

Oct Up, 2010
by Derek Bermel (b. 1967, New York)

Oct Up for double string quartet was commissioned in 2004 by the Fontana Chamber Music Festival in Kalamazoo. It was written for the Pacifica Quartet as a teaching piece, to perform alongside a high school string quartet. The lead quartet, using a continual measured tremolo, punctuates the continuous collage of syncopated rhythms. The second part of this short, polytonal piece uses a rhythmic mirroring technique that I call “shadowing,” learned from Lobi xylophone players in Ghana.

-Program note by Derek Bermel

Canzonas Americanas, II. Silvioudades (ecos e lembranças), 2010
by Derek Bermel (b. 1967, New York)

While writing Canzonas Americanas I kept in mind a request from Gustavo Dudamel to consider the interconnectedness of North and South American musical traditions. This was not a difficult task, as our cultures are sonically intertwined, both historically and contemporaneously. From Gershwin and Copland to Ellington and Gillespie, many of our trailblazing composers have been indelibly influenced by Latin music, and vice-versa. Apart from their distinct instrumentations, Afro-Brazilian and African-American compositions – such as Pixinguina’s chôros and Joplin’s rags – can be difficult to distinguish. My hometown of New York has become as much of a center for salsa and merengue music as Havana or Santo Domingo, and the U.S. as a whole is becoming more bilingual and bicultural with each successive generation. In preparation for writing the piece, I returned to Brazil for a month, where I spent days refamiliarizing my fingers with chôros, bossa nova, and samba standards, at night jamming with friends in clubs around Rio de Janeiro. In this way I reconnected with the South American spirit, and the piece now feels to me to be as much about memory as music.

The second movement, Silvioudades (ecos e lembranças), is an homage to Silvio Robatto, the great architect and photographer of Salvador; it is a simple Brazilian chôros – with a slight Bulgarian inflection – which adds a canonic ‘echo’ in each succeeding verse.

Canzonas Americanas was commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

-Program note by Derek Bermel

Carmen Suite, 1967
by Rodion Shchedrin (b. Moscow, 1932)
after Georges Bizet (Paris, 1838 – Paris, 1875)

Rodion Shchedrin, one of the most prominent living Russian composers, conceived the idea of creating a ballet version of Carmen as a vehicle for his wife, the great ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. The one-act ballet, which opened at the Bolshoy Theatre in Moscow in 1967 with choreography by Alberto Alonso from the Cuban National Ballet, was entitled Carmen Suite, to indicate that the composer treated Bizet’s operatic score with considerable liberty. The 13 movements do not follow the original sequence of the music; instead, they condense and rearrange the material to tell an original story, somewhat in the manner of Peter Brook’s later Tragedy of Carmen (1982). In addition to Carmen, Shchedrin also used themes from Bizet’s L’Arlésienne and La jolie fille de Perth.

Shchedrin left the notes mostly unchanged, but he freely altered the tempos, the dynamics, and especially the orchestration, which uses an exceptionally large battery of percussion.. As a result, the character of the music is often completely transformed. Some melodies are interrupted in mid-course, others are played with important notes left out. Accents are shifted, and inside voices brought out in a novel way. For instance, one of the motifs in the famous Habanera was re-orchestrated in such a way that it suddenly begins to sound like a passage from Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony…

The story of the passionate Gypsy girl, the deserter Don José and the toreador Escamillo is not told with the same directness as in the opera, but rather hinted at and commented on in the language of the ballet. The work is framed by a prologue and epilogue in which fragments of the Habanera, played by the tubular bells, waft through the air as nostalgic reminiscences. From this dreamworld, a dramatic crescendo takes us directly into the very real presence of the heroine, whose seductive dancing immediately clashes with the operas ‟fate” motive, foretelling the tragic ending. José’s military song, strangely distorted, seems to signal the undoing of this honest, but naive and irresponsible character. Yet the greatest part of the suite is based on Carmen’s music, which is fitting if we remember that the entire project had been inspired by Plisetskaya’s artistry. The smugglers’ quintet, one of the brighter episodes in the opera, turned into a brilliant scherzo with agile violin pizzicatos and powerful percussion effects. The movements taken from the other Bizet works fit in seamlessly with the Carmen excerpts and add more facets—in turn lyrical and playful—to the drama.

The treatment of Escamillo’s Toreador song will, no doubt, raise some eyebrows as this number, like José’s song before, is treated with more freedom than Carmen’s music, again as a sign that no man can remain himself before this most fatale of all femmes. José’s confession of love, beautifully orchestrated for strings, receives an exaggeratedly passionate makeover, with a fortissimo climax where Bizet had written a pianissimo high note for the tenor, perhaps in order to maximize the contrast with the following movement where Carmen confronts the spectre of death which the cards have prophesied her.

In the intermezzo of Act IV, the bullfight music is scored for marimbas, in order to clash all the more forcefully with the fate motif. A return of the smugglers’ quintet is not able to delay the tragic dénouement for very long: the final confrontation between Carmen and José, which leads to the murder, is milked for all its dramatic effect. Finally, the curtain closes as the tubular bells wistfully recall the most glorious moment in the slain heroine’s life.

At the time of the premiere, Soviet officials criticized the work for what they perceived as a ‟mockery” of Bizet’s music and an undue emphasis on Carmen’s sexuality. It was only after Shostakovich personally came to Shchedrin’s defense that the apparatchiks relented and the ballet could begin its triumphant career at the Bolshoy and beyond.

-Program Note by Peter Laki