14 August 2018

Recollecting Castelo dos anjos

I’ve written my own self-help book.
Porridger’s Almanack (Breakfast of Ganglions)

The plunge into this pit I had avoided by the merest of accidents, I knew that surprise, or entrapment into torment, formed an important part of these dungeon deaths.  Having failed to fall, it was no part of the demon plan to hurl me into the abyss;  and thus (there being no alternative) a different and milder destruction awaited me.  Milder!  I half smiled in my agony as I thought of such application of the term.
– Edgard Allan Poe, “The Pit and the Pendulum”

One is often surprised at the juvenilities which grown people indulge in at sea, and the interest they take in them, and the consuming enjoyment they get out of them.  This is on long voyages only.  The mind gradually becomes inert, dull, blunted;  it loses its accustomed interest in intellectual things;  nothing but horse-play can rouse it, nothing but wild and foolish grotesqueries can entertain it.  On short voyages it makes no such exposure of itself;  it hasn’t time to slump down to this sorrowful level.
– Mark Twain, Following the Equator

Eleven years ago today (before this blog came into existence, that is) I was finishing the proofing of Castelo dos anjos for Tapestry.  The ladies of Tapestry had sent me a number of texts, I suppose the idea was that I should choose one, but I liked all of them, and immediately formed the idea of writing a long-ish through-composed cantata.

[1.] “Lá no céu está um castelo — The accompaniment is a kind of rhythm game of interlocking patterns;  the percussion and the voices cycle at different rates.  Additionally, there are some ‘breathing’ departures from the mechanical repetition in the percussion;  and though the canonical relation of the two lower voices is fairly strict, the pattern which begins by fairly regular repetition gradually ‘blossoms’ a bit in counterpoint to the solo.  The florid writing for the soprano here is not literal folk music, but (I hope) something of a ‘lens’ upon folk music.  I wanted to take musical advantage of the fact that the texts of both [1.] and [2.] closed with doxologies;  so for the Glórias here I changed musical gears, not only in the ‘Picardy third’ shift to the major from the Phrygian mode, but in something of a sonic homage to the ritornello-like Lyke-Wake Dirge of Stravinsky’s Cantata.  The doxologies also serve as a break for the percussionist to change instruments.

[2.] “Noite de Natal (a)” — As [1.] started out as a kind of ‘dancing ritual’, with this setting I wanted something brilliant and lively.  The combination of the rapid tempo and the nimble meter changes make this a practicing challenge (I have a knack, it seems, for writing music which resists sight-reading), but I hope there is a musical reward which compensates the labor.  The doxology is a loose inversion of that from [1.]  It ends on a half-cadence in a new key, which waits until m. 188 to take tonal effect.

[3.] Intermezzo — I wrote this so that the percussionist has the responsibility of setting the new tempi at mm. 148, 167 & 188.  The overall effect of the changing tempi is a kind of accelerando, and yet (paradoxically, because of the reorientation of the pulse) to set up [4.] which is the slowest tempo of the piece.

[4.] “Noite de Natal (b)” — Overall an A-B-A' shape;  the A material is a strophic ballad with gradual variation (mostly in the accompaniment).  The opening A consists of three strophes;  the accompaniment at first continues the clapping from the Intermezzo, then the two accompanying voices join essentially as sustaining tones with momentary ornament . . . loosely in rhythmical canon, and with a gradual ‘accelerando’ suggested by gradually briefer note durations.  One of the first ideas I had for the overall piece was tied to the lines where the gallos and pajaritos are singing;  I’ve always known that I should want twittery music for those lines.  On the surface it feels like a change to a quicker tempo, but of course the 16th-note pulse is constant.  Since so much of the piece heretofore has centered on the same pitch as a home, the birds here also serve as a kind of pivot, in inviting us to different keys.  With the return to the A ballad, the bongos return as well;  one strophe is a solo, the next a duet, and the bongos increase in rhythmic intensity. To contrast with the doxologies which served as tempo transitions and ‘breaths’ after [1.] and [2.], tempo remains constant between [4.] and [5.], though the impassioned bongo solo ‘masks’ that continuity somewhat.

[5.] “Rosaflorida — To reflect the similarity of the texts, I wanted Rosaflorida to be both a clear echo of Lá no céu está um castelo,” and yet, to make itself distinct, too.  The bongo pattern is a literal return (in fact, if anything more relentlessly exact in its repetition than the bongos of [1.]).  Generally, where Lá no céu está um castelo carries itself as tightly regulated ostinati contrasting with quasi-improvisatory solo, Rosaflorida instead creates an impression of a denser mesh of more communal improvisation among the three voices (notwithstanding that the mezzo and alto are again in relatively strict canon).  In the soprano line, the literal gestural borrowings from Lá no céu está um castelo sneak in with (I think) a little subtlety, and the ‘chemistry’ between the solo and the accompaniment is a bit like a new creation with similar elements.  The contrapuntal coda, I hope, appears as a logical ‘destination’ plotted from the doxologies which close [1.] and [2.]

In a kind of ‘global reflection’ of the Phrygian mode which dominates [1.] and [5.], the general progression of keys in the piece – A in [1.], G in [2.], F at the start of [4.] but moving to E (which then sets up a return to A for [5.]) – is a descending tetrachord suggesting the Phrygian mode.

At least twice, I have thought of adapting/modifying the piece for other performers.  I may yet do so for Triad, though it would not be until the 2019-20 season.

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