If you think that incredible food cannot inspire creativity, think again. Whenever I am in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I lunch (at least twice per trip) at the Paradise Road’s Gallery Cafe. Their superb menu includes justly talked-about desserts, of which my favourite for years has been the infamous Chocolate Nemesis (below). It is all kinds of chocolate fabulousness over a biscuit base, topped with a dollop of freshness. And that drizzle of sunshine is in fact a passionfruit coulis. Oh yes. The whole ensemble is drool-worthy and I yearn to be able to compose a little piece just as good:
“There’s a wonderful scene in the, er, well where the girl goes out to the mysterious place where the ‘Wizard of Oz’ is. A voice BOOMS at them, critically. Then the little dog runs across and pulls aside the curtain, suddenly revealing that the person who has got this booming voice is….a negligible figure.”
Roger Ebert, however, was no negligible figure. No, there was no doubting his influence. I would cringe to be that film-maker whose creation had received the caustic end of Ebert’s pen, along with the royal ‘thumbs-down’. Worse, a negative review from Ebert could potentially turn away cinema-goers who might otherwise actually enjoy the movie. But what about those movies he raved about?
w/director Martin Scorsese (right)
I find there to be a curious contrast between the average classical concert-goer and the average movie-goer: the former are stuck in the past (they don’t consider that the Western canon could include any music written post-1950, or even anything too dissonant), while the latter are stuck in the present (they have watched almost no films from the generation that preceded them). I find this phenomenon to be problematic….and tragic, when you consider that either person is unaware of unseen treasure.
I am no authority on cinema as an artform. I just adore it. In turn, it hugely influences my work as a musician. When I was just getting my feet wet, I would peruse the contents page of Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies, pick a movie, watch it, then rush back to the book to devour his essay on that movie. It was as if his recommendations and revelations would take me by the hand and lead me to sources of great inspiration which I would not have discovered otherwise: Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Hitchcock’s Notorious, Robert Altman’s Nashville, to name a few. I still go through ‘The Great Movies’ whenever I have time. And seeing as there are two more volumes, I am glad that my Ebert-inspired journey of discovery will occupy me for years to come. I am just broken-hearted that he is not around anymore to add to his collection.
I am surprised to hear myself say this but, on occasion, I have even found Ebert’s written digest to be as enjoyable as the film itself. After all, isn’t there something we say about mere words not being able to do justice to, say, great music? But perhaps someone with the combination of insight, passion and eloquence of a Roger Ebert could use words to provoke us just as much? I remember when, many years ago, I watched Citizen Kane. I simply wanted to find out why it was called ‘the greatest film of all time’. I ended up loving it, and immediately afterwards, Ebert’s DVD commentary made me love it even more. You can find this on the collector’s edition here. It is a commentary so natural and effortless that one assumes Ebert is speaking purely off-the-cuff on a topic he clearly knows inside-out.
I would also recommend Ebert’s Altman Home Companion, which I reread whenever I want to reflect on the work of my favourite director. I loved the fact that Ebert, who hugely raised awareness and appreciation for well-made independent films of all languages, would use the same yardstick for the commercial movies of the Hollywood studio system, drawing attention to artistry wherever he could find it. He just loved a good movie.
He also hated a bad movie, evidence of which is plain to see in such titles as:
Gotta love the cover. As we bid farewell to the great and indefatigable Roger Ebert, I leave you with an extract from his review of a film whose title I won’t mention. In it, he reminds us of the aesthetic values he carried until the very end:
“There is a lazy editing style in action movies these days that assumes nothing need make any sense visually. In a good movie, we understand where the heroes are, and where their opponents are, and why, and when they fire on each other, we understand the geometry. In a mess like this, the frame is filled with flashes and explosions and shots so brief that nothing makes sense.
To conclude the same review, with a trademark flash of wit and wisdom, he offers the present generation some forthright advice:
Young men: If you attend this crap with friends who admire it, tactfully inform them they are idiots. Young women: If your date likes this movie, tell him you’ve been thinking it over, and you think you should consider spending some time apart.”
The first piece from my 2012 Halifax JazzFest show is finally out on video, thanks to the boys at the CBC! I have used this blog to follow the gestation of this epic ‘song’, so if you would like to explore this in more detail please click on a tag at the bottom of this post.
In case you are wondering about the lyrics, I mentioned them in a previous post. I used one of the quatrains from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, in a very beautiful (and liberal) translation by Edward Fitzgerald:
I sent my soul through the invisible, some letter of that after-life to spell, and by and by my soul return’d to me, and answer’d: “I myself am heav’n and hell”
This after attempting to write my own lyrics and deciding, shortly thereafter, that it is something best left to the professionals. My favourite section of the whole piece is the very last one, beginning around 15’30″, when young Reeny Smith (20 years of age at the time of recording) quite simply knocks the lyrics out of the park :)
“Dinuk Wijeratne’s Tabla Concerto is a breath of fresh air in the repertoire – a vibrant, colourful piece that orchestras love to play, and audiences will never forget.” - MaestraJoAnn Falletta (Music Director: Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra & Virginia Symphony Orchestra; Principal Conductor: the Ulster Orchestra)
To listen to this piece, please visit CBC Music here.
World premiere given by Ed Hanley (Tabla) & Symphony Nova Scotia conducted by Bernhard Gueller on February 9th, 2012, @ the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Recorded live by the CBC. First Canada-wide broadcast: Sunday January 27th on IN CONCERT, CBC Radio2. The Tabla Concerto was a finalist for the 2012 Masterworks Prize.
1. Canons, Circles
2. Folk song: ‘White in the moon the long road lies (that leads me from my love)’
3. Garland of Gems
While the origins of the Tabla are somewhat obscure, it is evident that this ‘king’ of Indian percussion instruments has achieved global popularity for the richness of its timbre, and for the virtuosity of a rhythmically complex repertoire that cannot be separated from the instrument itself. In writing a large-scale work for Tabla and Symphony Orchestra, it is my hope to allow each entity to preserve its own aesthetic. Perhaps, at the same time, the stage will be set for some new discoveries.
While steeped in tradition, the Tabla lends itself heartily to innovation, and has shown its cultural versatility as an increasingly sought-after instrument in contemporary Western contexts such as Pop, Film Music, and World Music Fusion. This notion led me to conceive of an opening movement that would do the not-so-obvious by placing the Tabla first in a decidedly non-Indian context. Here, initiated by a quasi-Baroque canon in four parts, the music quickly turns into an evocation of one my favourite genres of electronic music: ‘Drum-&-Bass’, characterised by rapid ‘breakbeat’ rhythms in the percussion. Of course, there are some North-Indian Classical musical elements present. The whole makes for a rather bizarre stew that reflects globalisation, for better or worse!
A brief second movement becomes a short respite from the energy of the outer movements, and offers a perspective of the Tabla as accompanist in the lyrical world of Indian folk-song. Set in ‘dheepchandhi’, a rhythmic cycle of 14 beats, the gently lilting gait of theTabla rhythm supports various melodic fragments that come together to form an ephemeral love-song.
Typically, a Tabla player concluding a solo recital would do so by presenting a sequence of short, fixed (non-improvised) compositions from his/her repertoire. Each mini-composition, multi-faceted as a little gem, would often be presented first in the form of a vocal recitation. The traditional accompaniment would consist of a drone as well as a looping melody outlining the time cycle – a ‘nagma’ – against which the soloist would weave rhythmically intricate patterns of tension and release. I wanted to offer my own take on a such a recital finale, with the caveat that the orchestra is no bystander. In this movement, it is spurred on by the soloist to share in some of the rhythmic complexity. The whole movement is set in ‘teentaal’, or 16-beat cycle, and in another departure from the traditional norm, my nagma kaleidoscopically changes colour from start to finish. I am indebted to Ed Hanley for helping me choose several ‘gems’ from the Tabla repertoire, although we have certainly had our own fun in tweaking a few, not to mention composing a couple from scratch.
It has been several months since a beautiful, balmy summer evening in July 2012 saw us debut the WijeratneWorks project, featuring DJ Skratch Bastid. Boy did I have a ball that night. Many of you have asked to see/hear some footage from the show; I can tell you that it has certainly been an agonizing wait for me especially. I only recently got the call from the CBC saying that we would be going into the studio to begin mixing and editing, not forgetting that all the audio will ultimately be synced to video, yeh. It won’t be long now until the whole show hits the airwaves, but if you need something to keep you going until then, here is an excerpt of my favourite piece from the show:
Thanks to a harmonious collaboration of GOOGLE Docs, LOGIC Score Editor, and MAC screenshots (I stand in awe of technology and btw how would I survive without shift⇧-command⌘-4, the world’s most useful keyboard shortcut?!), my ‘score’ for this section ended up looking like I’d been armed with scissors and glue, yet never had to worry about paper cuts and sticky fingers:
Skratch Bastid burns up the Schubert (please forgive us Franz)
the young Reeny Smith belies her age
no time like the Dave Burton
In the studio
To finally hear all the recorded audio footage was cathartic, to say the least. I’m quite proud that Tsimo! has come out so well. Notably, there is quite a symphonic arc to it; gratifying considering that it was a world premiere, ambitious in scope, with all of us on stage slowly working our way down an untravelled musical path. Once in the studio, I was blessed to work with mixer/editor Pat Martin and the very visionary Karl Falkenham. Karl and his fellow CBC producer Glenn Meisner recently retired after a combined seventy years (gasp) at the CBC.
Glenn & Karl @ their farewell shindig
I feel so special that my WijeratneWorks debut marks Karl’s last official work as a CBC producer, and that he even came out of retirement to wrap everything up, his enthusiasm and expertise ever-present. He has been a catalyst for the creativity of artists through the decades, and I salute him.
Karl pouring over his mix and edit notes
Pat just can’t help touching all the buttons
Whatever did we do before we had [....]?!
Since everyone loves stories of the almost-gone-wrong, I’ll leave you with my personal anecdote of mid-session studio angst. I’m paraphrasing conversation amongst composer, producer and mixer/editor, but you get the gist:
ME: “Oh noooooo! The balance of all the samples in this climax is completely upside down. The most important loops are too quiet….while the least important ones are too prominent. We are able to adjust the levels of individual samples right?”
PAT: “Actually, no.”
KARL: “It’s not possible because we don’t have the DJ’s material on separate channels at this point in the piece. Everything is lumped together; we can’t change the balance.”
PAT: “Do you have the samples with you now?”
ME: (my state of anxiety worsening) “Arggghh, they’re at home….Oh wait! I may have put them all in a mobile folder….”
[Subsequent note to self: there's no point in having the DROPBOX app on your does-everything-but-make-toast iPhone 5 if you don't fill its folders with the files that you actually need]
ME: (depression at rock bottom) “Well that’s that then. So much for the mix.”
KARL: “Would Skratch have them?”
ME: (glimmer of hope) “I could text him right now! Gawd, I hope he’s not on tour.”
Amazingly for me, this story had a happy ending. If ever DROPBOX were to have a competition calling for the most eulogized story of how their service saved someone’s *ss in a moment of crisis, here’s my winning entry: a mere 5 minutes after thinking that my whole mix was doomed, my dear colleague responds immediately to a text sent from the studio by transferring all of the 100+ samples I constructed for the whole project, directly to our man at the console. Karl grins.
Well, make better use of DROPBOX, obviously ;) Having individual samples at our disposal allowed us to overdub them onto the live track, fine-tuning via automation exactly according to the dictates of how this particular climax of the piece should grow organically. To my ears the transformation was so stark; from the muddled to the emotionally coherent. It was a powerful exposé of how ‘balance’ is just as expressive a musical parameter as phrasing or any other. The acoustic equivalent would be to have, say, an orchestra playing perfectly in time and in tune but not expressing anything meaningful due to the fact that all the various musical lines were utterly out of balance.
(concert photos by kind permission of Stefan Massing)
A ‘mode’ in musical terminology can have many definitions, but certainly a well-known one is that of a ‘scale’ or ‘melody-type’. Of these there is a gloriously rich abundance, when you consider their use in the various musical cultures of the world. Take the Carnatic (South-Indian) modes, or ragas, for instance. There are 72 fundamental melakartha (parent) ragas, from which other ‘descendants’ may be generated. If you ever find yourself curious about them, as I occasionally am, here they are in Western notation. Admittedly the chart below is quite crude in its Westernized format, but at least this will serve as some kind of resource for the composer, improviser, or lifelong student. I apologize for the scrappy look of these digital images, but if you click on them they will at least enlarge for further clarity:
This is actually a regular blog entry attempting to masquerade as a ‘disc of the month’ post (he said sheepishly). In my defence, owing to a terribly hectic yet artistically rewarding summer of great music-making and much intercontinental dining, I have fallen behind and thereby come to the sad realization that this whole ‘disc of the month’ series is not destined to be as, cough, ‘monthly-ish’ as it suggests. However, when I am struck by the urge to recommend something, I will certainly do my darndest not to keep it to myself!
As a music student in New York City I enrolled in an analysis class with the great Carl Schachter. By this time he was already a bit of a legend; arguably the most influential Schenkerian analyst since Schenker himself. Each week I would look forward to Prof. Schachter’s class with much enthusiasm. He strikes a wonderful balance between elucidating music cerebrally and intuitively – a rare gift possessed by college professors, in my opinion. One day he decided to discuss tempo rubato (literally, ‘robbed time’ in Italian, referring to rhythmic flexibility in musical performance). He played this crackly old recording for us, without first announcing the either the title of the piece, the composer, or the performer:
I remember instantly thinking that, until that day, I had not heard such sophisticated pianism. Firstly, I didn’t think that someone could elicit a tone from a piano that was so singing that it could completely defy the percussive nature of the instrument. The melody here floats so freely that it seems disembodied. When it’s in the treble, it glows; when it’s in the bass (check out 0’49″), it booms with rich orchestral resonance. All the while, a hushed accompaniment pulsates with a heck of a lot of momentum….but boy can it turn on a dime. And this brings me to the ultra-expressive, swoon-worthy rubato. Personally I find it totally sincere and never indulgent. Indeed, the virtuosity of this playing is not in the speedy fingers or flashy runs, but in how everything else is precisely controlled to evoke an emotional response. Yes, it’s never felt this good to be manipulated ;)
Ignaz Friedman (b. Poland 1882, d. Australia 1948)
Listening to this recording even today, many years later, I marvel at a testament of how the art of Ignaz Friedman can be transmitted through a haze of pops, crackle, and hiss. And all in a mere 2½ minutes, in the form of an unassuming little ‘Song Without Words’ by Mendelssohn (op.53 no.2). Within a miniature exists an entire world of musical expression that evokes the so-called ‘golden age’ of piano playing in full force.
Now that I have your attention (wry smile), let me ask you whether you think anyone will ever surpass Friedman’s 1936 recording of the Chopin E flat Nocturne op.55 no.2…..
At 0’23″, after the delicate balance between the melody and its accompaniment has been established, we are suddenly yet subtly made aware of a secondary voice (also played by the right hand). Subdued but with its own intensity, Friedman presents it as a quietly assured dissenting opinion, imbuing it with a human quality (hear it again for instance at 0’30″ and 0’42″). His exquisite handling of voicing and balance reminds me of a Daniel Barenboim quote:
Not forgetting that the two right hand voices – one dominant, one subversive – are imbued with such human qualities in this recording that they might represent ‘real’ characters in the listener’s mind. Sound takes on meaning, and then comes to life. In my previous post, I expressed that the spiritual significance of musical counterpoint for us listeners or performers might represent some kind of Utopia, in which conflicts and resolutions play in out in a more ideal way than they do in real life.
a great collector’s item (2CDs), now sadly out of print :(
Friedman’s recorded legacy is preciously small. It fits on about five CDs, and really doesn’t comprise any large pieces. I would recommend the NAXOS albums. However, we should be wary of branding him as a miniaturist (despite his genius for it) since he was in fact a globe-trotting repertoire-hound who, in 1904 for instance, performed the Brahms D minor, Tchaikovsky B flat minor, and Liszt E flat concertos all in one evening! (I’m still trying to get my head around that one). And for his most lasting impression on posterity? It is said that nobody could play a Chopin Mazurka like old Ignaz :) The great pianist Stephen Hough, in his fantastic blog, even refers to the ‘charisma’ of Friedman’s Mazurka playing. Also, a brief but much appreciated webpage talks about Ignaz Friedman’s sorcery here. They include two complete Mazurka recordings. Have you ever heard such classy left hand swing?! He danced the Mazurka as a child in Poland; little wonder that it is ‘in his blood’.
“We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.” - Abraham Lincoln
My morning ritual involves checking on the world news after listening to some Mozart and drinking tea. Today, I was reminded that it has been just over a week since the anti-Islam film riots began. The protests still continue. Yes, sadly we live in a world in which a deliberately disrespectful film can elicit violent reactions; where ‘freedom of speech’ is practised more than ‘freedom from speech’; in which the tyranny of our own egos can obstruct us from our tolerance of others.
I find the nature of conflict in human behaviour endlessly fascinating. Certainly many of the world’s greatest scientific minds grapple with the question: “are we innately aggressive?” In the meantime, resolving the inevitable conflicts in our daily lives is an ongoing, active, and multi-faceted process that we all struggle with to varying degrees. Music, however, is quite different. It can well be filled with a multitude of voices, each with its own valid opinion, the totality simultaneously expressing both tension and resolution, conflict and reconciliation. This phenomenon – a powerful metaphor for peace – is rather miraculous when you think about it. As such, it offers an explanation for music’s ability to be transcendent, whichever way you wish to describe a ‘spiritual’ experience.
The musical term counterpointrefers to the art of combining different melodic lines in a musical composition. This term is admittedly rather Western-classical-centric, so to think more broadly: when anything in music makes a ‘point’, a ’counterpoint’ can be defined as ‘an argument, idea, or theme used to create a contrast with the former’. I find there to be extraordinary beauty and inspiration in the fact that music allows us to either compose, play, or listen to ideas that can coexist with other ideas….frankly in a way that they tend not to coexist in society. We have the tremendous privilege, then, that music can be our Utopia. Despite the fact that music is both ephemeral and incorporeal (transient and without a physical body), it is still gratifyingly a realm in which all conflict plays out in harmony.
I was planning to embed an audio file but instead found a great example of Bach’s supreme counterpoint, synced in video to a terrific little computer-generated animation! (Warped though it is that this little gem of a YouTube clip is from the very same website that hosts the infamous anti-Islam film. By the way, if you’ve seen the trailer, like me you might find that even in artistic and production value is it utterly distasteful). In the video below however, you can actually follow the unfolding of a discourse of six voices (yes, six, Bach was a genius). There is an ever-changing hierarchy: some are dominant, some are submissive, some propose, some subvert. Yet somehow everyone is still embraced in mutual respect for their differences. Even the subversive voices – the dissenting opinions – find a comfortable place for expression in a musical Utopia.
With much anxiety (mostly positive), I share with you the news that the Tabla Concerto (2011) is a finalist for this year’s Masterworks Arts Award.
with Symphony Nova Scotia, Ed Hanley, and Bernhard Gueller, introducing the TABLA CONCERTO at the world premiere (Feb 9th, 2012)
Thanks to the CBC, you can now hear the entire Tabla Concerto online here.
It is my deepest privilege to be recognized by a community to whom I enjoy giving so much, not to mention the privilege of standing amongst distinguished company for this prestigious pan-genre prize. Yes, pan-genre. Each year, nominations pour in from a wide variety of media, leading to the inevitable question that has fired-up many a debater regarding the very validity of a multi-disciplinary award: “is it even possible to judge a musical composition against a book; a theatrical play against a wooden sculpture….like a chair?” Well, I’ll leave you to form your own opinion! Hmmm, I feel another online poll coming on ;) And to get you all fired up, here is the staggering diversity of the 2012 finalists. As far as press goes, the COAST had something to say here, and the CHRONICLE HERALD here. Results out by the end of October, eek.
Next Saturday, September 22nd 2012, I perform the 3rd movement of the concerto – ‘Garland of Gems’ – in an arrangement for chamber ensemble. Also on the program is Prismatic Qawwali Party 2012, which I’m hoping will be even more, er, Qawwali-er than Prismatic Qawwali Party 2010. It will, provided you come and clap along in true Qawwali spirit. Details here.