Program Notes (Summer 2012)

Benjamin Franklin

String Quartet, with Electronics by John Holland

Benjamin Franklin, experimenter, revolutionary, music enthusiast, and one of America’s founding fathers, composed a string quartet around 1778 while living just outside of Paris. It is scored, not for the usual 2 violins, viola, and cello, but for three violins and cello. The score calls for scordatura tuning of each instrument, that is, a retuning of the four open strings of each instrument, thus providing 16 open string pitches – a 16-tone scale – while bowing only open strings with no left-hand fingering. The music is divided into 5 separate movements that form a simple 18th century dance suite.

In the same spirit of experimentation, I have ‘collaborated’ with the Franklin quartet, addinging 21st century electronic sounds to the 18th century strings. In addition to the electronics, I have sampled various sounds that refer to Franklin and his interests, such as the Glass Armonica (Mozart), thunder and lightning (discovery of electricity), the American eagle (which he wanted to replace with the turkey as a national symbol), pheasant, and other bird and animal sounds common during this period. I hope Franklin would have approved.

There has always been some doubt whether Franklin actually composed the String Quartet, which was discovered in 1945 in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and ascribed to him. “There is no mention of the Quartetto in his writing or correspondence and the manuscript is not in Franklin’s handwriting,” says Kenneth Sarch, professor, violinist and arranger of three movements of the quartet for String Orchestra. “However, there is nothing like it in the entire literature and I have no doubt that Franklin did compose this work to fulfill a challenge to add to his many interests and intellectual pursuits. Franklin penned a drinking song in his youth, published music, improved the Glass Harmonica (for which Mozart and Gluck wrote) and wrote an essay on the aesthetics of music.”

Below is a link to an article written in 2006 by Andrew Druckenbrod (popular music critic for the Pittsburg Post Gazette) that revives the historical debate surrounding the authorship of Franklin’s quartet.

View the article:

Henry Purcell

Music for a While for Voice and Basso Continuo

Music for a While is one of Purcell’s most famous songs. It is from Act III, Scene 1 of the musical drama, Oedipus, written in 1678 by John Dryden, with incidental music by Purcell. In the tragedy, the purpose of the song is to calm the three furies:

Music, for a while, shall all your cares beguile.

Purcell extends the text by repeating, Shall, all — all, all — shall all your cares beguile.

The music was originally scored for voice, two violins, and continuo (cello and harpsichord).

The vocalist on this famous recording is Alfred Deller (31 May 1912 – 16 July 1979), one of the main figures in popularizing the use of the countertenor voice in renaissance and baroque music.

Below are additional notes from Harper’s Magazine Online, dated March 2009 (unknown author):

‘ “Music for a While” requires a bit of unpacking. The work is drawn from the world of Greek mythology and the Oedipus legend, but ultimately it is a statement about the power of music. Dryden and Purcell have some strong beliefs about art in general and music in particular. Dryden was an adherent of the Pythagorean theory of music, as emerges from a number of his works. He understands it as a sort of secret mathematical script that governs the universe. Music is sound, but it is also the expression of mathematical relationships. It must therefore be possible to express basic concepts of astrophysics, for instance, both mathematically and musically. And in this sense, there is a “music of the spheres” that governs the celestial bodies, the physical conditions on them and the creatures that inhabit them. When Dryden speaks of “music” in these terms he is not necessarily speaking in terms of score sheets with musical notation the way Purcell would have understood them, of course.

Henry Purcell’s treatment of this text (Z. 583) is amazing and masterful. He turns to the device of basso ostinato, what he called a ground. This involves the repetition of a usually very simple theme in the base, with elaborations. The ground as a technique was a mainstay of the Baroque era, and then it dropped out of sight until modern times—it is now again very popular (think of the theme from “Jaws,” a very good example of the ground technique). But Purcell is advancing the ground as an example of the “instructive” function of music; it is cerebral, he introduces mathematical elaborations to it. It marks the triumph of reason.’

Charles Ives

Three Quarter-Tone Pieces for Two  Pianos

Charles Ives composed his Three Quarter-Tone Pieces for Two Pianos in 1924. He experimented with various tuning possibilities but finally settled on a scheme in which one piano is tuned a quarter-tone apart from the other. Pianists today typically tune one piano a quarter-tone lower than the other.

Ives wrote about the work in a short musical treatise titled Some Quarter-Tone Impressions:

‘Why tonality as such should be thrown out for good, I can’t see. Why it should always be present, I can’t see … if an addition of a series of smaller tone divisions is to be added to our semi-tone system “to help round out our souls,” how much of a fight will the ears have to put up?’

Ives’s father was a musician and often experimented with sound. He performed some of the first quarter-tone experiments in the Ives household with violin strings.

Ives writes: “My father had a weakness for quarter-tones — in fact he didn’t stop even with them. He rigged up a contrivance to stretch 24 or more violin strings and tuned them up to suit the dictates of his own curiosity. He would pick out quarter-tone tunes and try to get the family to sing them, but I remember he gave that up except as a means of punishment — though we got to like some of the tunes which kept to the usual scale and had quarter-tone notes thrown in…

‘Father had “absolute pitch,” as men say. But it seemed to disturb him; he seemed half ashamed of it. “Everything is relative,” he said. “Nothing but fools and taxes are absolute.” A friend who was a “thorough musician” — he had graduated from the New England Conservatory at Boston — asked why with his sensitive ear he liked to sit down and beat out dissonances on the piano. “Well,” he answered, “I may have absolute pitch, but, thank God, that piano hasn’t.”

The older Ives once quipped: “The quarter-tone family, like most other families, has a sense of humor. But that’s a rather dangerous thing to refer to; it depends as much on where the catcher’s mitt is as on the pitcher’s curves.”

Jean Philippe Rameau

Allemande from New Suites of Harpsichord Pieces

The Allemande is romantic music at heart, a sublime work that, in the hands of the remarkably sensitive playing of Tzimon Barto (i.e. John Smith), fiction writer, contemporary thinker, and competitive body-builder, is capable of mesmerizing the listener. Barto performs the music extraordinarily softly (ppp – pp) and slowly (Adagio) throughout, with a fair amount of rubato – sometimes slowing, other times moving ahead where the music calls for it. It is music composed ‘ahead of its time’ performed not just by a fine player, but by an imaginative and insightful artist.

John Cage

Aria for Solo Voice

John Cage’s Aria is composed for a single vocalist who is asked to freely select 10 different singing styles that move rapidly from one to another. It was written for the legendary vocalist Cathy Berberian in 1958.

In the score, each style is represented by a different color, and the shape of the wavy lines or squiggles suggest the general melodic contour. There are also black squares that indicate a variety of noises. (see a page from the score below)

In this recording, baritone Paul Hillier, inspired by the difficulty of performing 10 separate vocal styles, experiments with dividing the vocal tasks among seven of his talented Theatre of Voices ensemble, including that of famed composer Terry Riley. John Cage, I’m sure, would have been delighted with the result.

(Below is a page from John Cage’s Aria)