Based on a Pop Groove: Michael Torke’s July

Michael Torke Six

On Friday we explored Renaissance composer Orlande de Lassus’ adaptive reuse of a bawdy French song by Jacobus Clemens non Papa. It was an example of a composer recognizing a good melody and transforming it for a completely different setting. But what happens when musical influence becomes much more subtle…so subtle that the composer forgets (or remains unaware of) the source?

American composer Michael Torke’s July grew out of a momentary fragment of the rhythmic groove of an overheard pop song. Torke can’t remember the R&B song that inspired July, written in 1995 for the Apollo Saxophone Quartet. He offers this description:

What fascinates me is that this act of translation seems to completely remove the original reference from my music; sometimes I can’t even remember what the original song was that inspired me and, if I do, it’s hard even to hear the connection. But what remains is the energy…Instead of single-mindedly exploring one color, as in earlier pieces of mine, the music now corresponds to an experience of time- the energy and heat we find in the month of July, as well as cooling breezes of repose that come, perhaps, in the evening.

July explodes with arpeggios that might remind you vaguely of the music of Philip Glass (listen to Glass’ Lady Day), or maybe even Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe. We hear hints of Steve Reich’s repetition of patterns over a slow moving bass line. But at the piece’s core is a spirited sense of rhythmic groove. Melodic fragments bubble to the surface and then are gone, like a mirage in the hot desert sun. As with other Torke pieces, the music has a mysterious way of transforming without us knowing what’s happening until after it has happened. We suddenly find ourselves in a new place without knowing exactly how we got there.

Here is the Delta Saxophone Quartet’s recording:

From Bawdy to Sacred: A Lassus Kyrie

Orlande de
Orlande de Lassus (1532-1594)

“Why should the devil have all the good music?” It’s a quote that has been incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther, among others. But Franco-Flemish composer Orlande de Lassus, Palestrina, and other composers in the late Renaissance actually put this idea into practice in the form of the Parody Mass. The Parody Mass borrowed from pre-existing music, often motets and secular chanson. Composers at the time commonly stole and adapted melodies the way jazz musicians do today.

In Missa Entre vous filles (1581), Lassus based his Kyrie on a raunchy, lustful, and sexually explicit French chanson by Jacobus Clemens non Papa (c. 1510-1556?) called Entre vous filles de quinze ans (listen to the song here). Listening to Lassus’ liturgical adaptation, you would never guess the melody’s origin. Dusted off and dressed in church clothes, it becomes completely new music. Lassus was able to develop this existing seed into a profound musical statement.

Notice the imitative counterpoint between voices, present from the beginning, and the rich, sensuous harmony. This gradually unfolding music is more about the moment than a far off goal. It’s interesting to consider the similarities between Lassus’ music, written over 400 years ago, and the music of contemporary composers like Ēriks Ešenvalds and Arvo Pärt.

  • Find this recording of Orlande de Lassus’ Missa Entre vous filles on iTunes, Amazon
  • Find music by Jacobus Clemens non Papa on iTunes, Amazon