Tuesday, March 15, 2011

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

ARABESCO program note

ARABESCO : suite in three movements for soprano, oboe and strings

1. Buveurs

2. La nuit

3. Le rosier

Arabesco began life as a movement in a ballet I composed in New York in the early 1970’s. Titled Commedia and based on characters of the Italian commedia dell’arte, the ballet proved too long in performance. The section titled ‘Arabesco’, set in an evening garden, was noticeably different – exotic and suggestive, while the rest of the ballet was crisp and obvious – so it was cut from the score.

In 1990, my interest was shifting to chamber ensembles, and I was also interested in exploring the dramatic potential of the voice in non-theatrical settings. The themes from the ‘Arabesco’ movement had never fully evaporated from my mind, and I thought they could be developed into a vocal concert piece. Taking my cue from the title of the movement, I began looking at classical Arabic and Persian poetry in English translations, and found themes and images that complemented, and even seemed to rise out of, the original dance music: (1) a sensual melancholy at the brevity and sorrows of life, (2) a mystical/spiritual experience that offers nourishment, if not a full explanation, for the mystery of being alive, and (3) a calmly joyful celebration of existence, complicated and strange though it may be.

I regret not knowing the poems in their original Arabic and Persian. The peculiarities of spoken/sung English made it difficult for me to evoke an Arabic spirit, and so I translated my mosaic of poetic fragments into French, a sonic field I considered vaguely equivalent to the fluid worlds of Arabic and Persian languages. I let the original dance music expand into three separate movements, reflecting the journey outlined above. When I showed my amateur translation to French friends, they were kind enough to refine my choice of words and syntax without explicitly telling me how poor my French had actually been. In 2005 I finally revised the piece’s music to accommodate the new text.

Now, although the text is in French, I have retained the Italian word Arabesco for the title, in homage to the music’s origins. With this I also wish to acknowledge that a spiritual transformation, which is the subject of the piece, need not be constrained by cultural or linguistic conditioning. The underlying truth of existence, whatever it may be, and which all humans (I believe) are capable of sensing, reveals itself differently in different contexts. Nuns may never dream of the Buddha, but “a rose is a rose is a rose” — regardless of century or country.

. . . . .

English translation of ARABESCO text:

I. Drinkers

text sources: Ibn al-Rumi (836-896)

Abu’l Atahiya (748-828)

Drinkers at evening, drunkards at dawn

pass this bowl of narcissus on the stairs.

The air quivers with the marriage

of two distillations.

Pause for this flower

where drops of dew are clinging

like tears before eyes shed them,

and then pass on, kindled to drink.

Every question has its answer

every event has its hour

every ascent has its limit

every action has its account

every man has his destiny written.

Every guarantee is a symbol of death

every building is a promise of destruction

every king and his domain coming to dust.

Every day is a step toward death;

you die while playing at arts and towers.

Every door of the world that you shut for safety

opens a door on a new fang.

You felt you were an empty husk when you found that the milk of life meant endless churning.

We have grown so old, old friends,

we might never have been young.

Youth vanished in spite of everything.

With youth worn out

there is no goal but death and the mountain.

II. At Night

text sources: Al Buhturi (820-897)

Ibn al Khatib (1313-1374)

Al Mutanabbi (915-965)

An Niffari (? -965)

At night the stars descend in silent order

and you see the cosmos standing on its hands.

Hesitation like a beam of light

opens the lips of flowers.

Surrounded by darkness,

the garden is lit by luminous stones.

A star spills out of a black cup,

falls felicitous, sheer,

unacquainted with any immodesty but haste.

“Lord, is there nothing in the cup for me?

While you were drinking I was singing to you.”

He stopped me and said, “Who are you

and who am I?”

And I saw the sun, the moon, the stars,

and all the lights.

And he said, “There remains no light

in the currents of my ocean

which you have not seen.”

Everything came to me until there was nothing.

It kissed me between the eyes,

it hailed me and stood in the shadow.

And he said, “You know me,

but I do not know you.”

And I saw the entirety of him

clinging to my garments

but not to me.

And he said, “This is my worship.”

And my garment inclined,

but I did not.

Then he said to me, “Who am I?”

The sun and moon darkened, the stars fell,

the lights were quenched,

and shadow overwhelmed everything save himself.

And my eyes no longer saw,

my ears no longer heard,

and the power to feel abandoned me.

And everything spoke and said,

“God is the greatest.”

And everything approached me, sword in hand.

At last his voice said, “Escape.”

I asked, “Where?”

And he said, “Into the darkness.”

And I fell in the darkness and saw myself.

And he said, “Never see anyone but yourself,

and never come out of the darkness

unless I bring you out;

and if I bring you out,

I will show you Myself, and you will see Me;

and if you see Me,

you will be the furthermost of the furthest.”

At night the stars descend in silent order.

III. The Rose-Tree

text source: Rumi (1207-1273)

Come, come, for the rose-tree has blossomed,

Come, come, for the beloved has arrived.

Bring together now soul and world.

The whole city was aroused

when the rumor spread

that the madman had once again escaped

from his chains.

What day is it, what day is it,

for such confusion?

Has the great book of men’s deeds already fallen back upon us?

Beat the drums and speak no more;

what hiding place is there for heart and mind?

For the soul, too, has fled.

O lovers, o lovers,

the time of meeting has come.

The proclamation from heaven has been given us:

Be welcome!

Joyous hearts, joyous hearts,

joy has come skirt a-trailing.

We have seized its chains,

it has seized our skirts.

The fiery potion has come;

demon sorrow, disappear.

Anxious soul, depart.

Enter, immortal saki,

the seven spheres of heaven

are drunk with passion for you.

Through you, our being is comforted myriad times.

O sweet-breathed minstrel, ring the bell!

O joy, saddle your steed!

O zephyr, blow upon our souls!

O sweet reed, in your tone is the taste of sugar.

Your notes bring me night and day

the scent of fidelity.

Start again, play those airs once more!

O sun, radiant presence,

may your glory illuminate the serene ones.

text selected by the composer

French adaptations by

Jean Faure and Véronique Julien-Le-Calvez

. . . . .


FIVE PIECES OF THE PUZZLE : septet for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, double bass and piano.

1. a rose in the sky

2. gathering rubies from the air

3. fata morgana

4. confetti

5. love’s orbit

“Five Pieces of the Puzzle” is a conflux of melodies in a variety of moods and costumes. Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, the forms of these pieces are irregular, apparently arbitrary, more “organic” in shape than strictly architectural. Also like jigsaw pieces, some of the movements share thematic elements, a color, a reference, while holding to an underlying identity that keeps them individual and distinct.

Above all, I was interested in exploring different musical textures and environments, juxtaposing the unfolding of pattern and the familiar with one-of-a-kind caprices and anomalies. The effect I was hoping for, more visual than auditory, was that of a mosaic, or of a kaleidoscopic representation of a mosaic — an array of fragments relating to each other while suggesting relationships and experiences beyond the circumscribed space and time of these five pieces of music. These are pieces of the puzzle, not the complete picture.

Unintentionally, the titles I gave these pieces all have a certain insubstantiality: the first in the sky, the second in the air, the third illusory, the next ephemeral, the last endlessly circling. The only title with a literary provenance is the second one, alluding to James Stephens’s short poem ‘In the imperative mood’:

“Let the man who has and doesn’t give

Break his neck, and cease to live!

Let him who gives without a care

Gather rubies from the air!”

. . . . .

Thursday, April 2, 2009


The tango melodies came to life in New York City in the late 1970s. I woke up in the middle of the night with a fragment of music in mind. It started growing into a full phrase so I got up, turned on the light, and wrote it down. This was the first theme (played by the flute) in the first tango, Soñador/the Dreamer. All the other tangos grew out of this one fragment. A little later came the pulsing rhythmic phrase that links the tangos of the suite.

I was listening to a lot of old Carlos Gardel recordings at the time, and in homage to him I kept the harmonic vocabulary and structure of my tangos as
simple as the popular songs of that era. The challenge was to achieve some musical richness and complexity while keeping the overall feeling simple and light.

I imagined these tangos as music in a dance-theatre piece, and I eventually sketched out a plot — about two Argentinian tango dancers stranded in
1920s New York. While the tango was blossoming richly in their own country, America was entering the "Jazz Age", the time of the flapper, hungry for noise and raucous rhythms. What fascinated me was that tango dancers always maintain touch with each other, moving intricately in harmony, while in those new American dances — the Black Bottom, the shimmy, the Charleston — it was rare for partners to touch; rather than a passionate commingling there was an exhibitionistic frenzy, a contempt for collaboration and cooperation, a refusal of intimacy. This was the period of Prohibition, bootlegging, gangsters, and the wild speculation leading up to the stock market crash of 1929. The theatre piece would be about innocence rubbing elbows with corruption — and the different forms of passion.

The tangos were initially sketched as a vocal/instrumental line with chords, occasionally filled in with piano accompaniment. I also wrote music for "American" songs and dances of the period, but the theatre piece around them never crystallized. I closed the cover on the project when I left New York in 1980. ... When I came to Santa Fe in 1986 I was asked to compose something for the San Miguel Trio — guitar, flute, and oboe or English horn — and the tangos came to mind; I felt that the textures of a guitar trio would lend themselves well to a suite that was warm, lyrical, unhurried, intimate. (A remnant of the "American" music is heard in the alto flute solo in the final tango of the suite, a la Puesta del Sol/at Sunset.)

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Christina Hall-Strauss
12" x 12"
acrylic on canvas

The cover art for the Tangos/Matapolvos CD is a detail of this painting. For more of Christina's work, please visit:


(excerpt of the program note from the first performance of Matapolvos, September 18, 2005, by Serenata of Santa Fe, in the the Santuario de Guadalupe, Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Gail Springer, soprano; Pamela Epple, English horn; Elena Sopoci, viola; Deborah Barbe, cello.)

Matapolvo is the Spanish word for a slight shower that barely settles the dust (matar = kill, polvo = dust). The pieces of this suite are attempts at setting to music a few atoms of the great firecloud of Latin American history, so wrenchingly rendered in Eduardo Galeano's trilogy “Memory of Fire”, from which the text is taken.

In 1990 a friend mentioned this work to me, recommending it for its literary richness as much as for its courageous approach to history. 'History' books had rarely attracted me, often seeming to avoid, if not actively obscure, some essential truth. Latin America, in particular, had always appeared to me as a vast but distant turbulence beyond my powers of comprehension – an enigmatic, occasionally blazing nebula in a neighboring cosmos. I had come to assume that everything I ever read about Latin America would be packaged in either romantic (revolutionary) fervor or a gray academic flatness.

Here, now, was a three-volume work by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano. Glancing through, I saw that the format – short pieces, many less than a page, each with a date, a place, and a title – was completely original. Within a few pages, I was mesmerized. I realized that my aversion to history was in fact a hunger long disappointed with being fed stones. Suddenly, here was bread.

The trilogy is a mosaic of human enterprise, aspiration and folly, a living, breathing mythology, speaking of the specific in language that conjures the universal. Galeano’s prose is intelligent, musical, measured, serving up story after story of passion and violence, exploitation and innocence, mad comedy and horrific tragedy, in a deceptively understated manner. I found it tremendously noble and tremendously sad. The English translation I had purchased read like poetry, and the original Spanish, when I obtained it, even more so. Much later, I learned that I wasn’t alone in imagining this writing set to music; whole villages in South America have made operas and even held festivals based on these books since their publication in 1986.

Originally, I marked over a hundred sections for musical settings – an impossible undertaking. Useful restrictions came in the form of Pamela Epple’s invitation to compose a piece of a certain length for the wonderful chamber group Serenata of Santa Fe, with a helpful suggestion toward possible instrumentation. A familiarity with Gail Springer’s beautiful vocal flexibility further focused my choice of text. My aim was to compose a suite modeled on a good meal of Spanish tapas and wine — sharp and smooth, richly textured, varied and complex — abundance without excess.

My special thanks to Eduardo Galeano and Susan Bergholz Literary Services for permission to use the text, which comes from the third volume of the trilogy: “Century of the Wind”.