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

Remembering James Erb

Unknown-93James Erb, a beloved member of Richmond’s music community, passed away last week at the age of 88. He will be remembered as a composer, arranger, conductor and musicologist, who specialized in the works of Renaissance composer, Orlando de Lassus. In 1971, Dr. Erb founded the Richmond Symphony Chorus. He also served as director of choral activities at the University of Richmond.

Those who knew James Erb will remember his youthful energy and contagious love of music. It would have been easy to imagine him enthusiastically pulling a score off the shelf for study at 6:00 on a Saturday morning. Violinist Holly Mulcahy offers a tribute here.

Here is James Erb’s arrangement of the American folk song, Shenandoah:

Arvo Pärt: Spirit in Sound and Space

Architect Steven Holl's Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle.
Architect Steven Holl’s Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle.

In June the Metropolitan Museum of Art and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary hosted a thought-provoking discussionSpirit in Sound and Space- A Conversation Inspired by Arvo Pärt, in conjunction with this summer’s Arvo Pärt Project. The discussion brought together architect Steven Holl, neuroscientist Robert Zatorre, and musician and theology professor Peter Bouteneff.

For Steven Holl, one of the most visionary contemporary architects, ideas often emerge through the process of painting watercolors. Buildings like the Chapel of St. Ignatius in Seattle and the Knut Hamsun Centertwo hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle in Hamarøy, Norway, register the flow of time with constant, subtly changing plays of light and shadow. Holl notes that Arvo Pärt “sees sound as space.” 

“Music surrounds you. It’s an immersive experience” says Holl, whose work is influenced by music. “Architecture, space surrounds you.”

Zatorre points out that the parietal lobe of the brain handles our perception of music as well as space. His insights, based on a strictly mechanistic view of the workings of the brain, are interesting, but in the end they leave many questions unanswered. The “spirit” part of the conversation remains elusive. What is the source of a creative idea? How do great buildings suddenly emerge out of Steven Holl’s brushstrokes? Albert Einstein hinted at these questions when he said,

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.

A new voice emerges…

The story of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) demonstrates the mysteries of the creative process. At the end of the 1960s, Pärt suddenly abandoned the dissonant, twelve tone music of the mid-century musical establishment. For eight years he was unable to compose beyond musical fragments jotted in a notebook. Then, in 1976 a new and radically different voice suddenly emerged with Für Alina, a three minute piece for piano:

All music flows through time. Listening to the mystical minimalism of Arvo Pärt, there’s an equally powerful sense of time flowing through music. It’s easy to become one with the moment in Pärt’s music. It allows us to “enter inside the sound.” You might be reminded of the meditative, circular flow of Gregorian Chant or the music of Lassus or Palestrina

Pärt’s style of writing, which suggests the overtones of bells, is known as Tintinnabulation. He describes it here:

Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises – and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. . . . The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.

Silentium

Silentium is the second movement of Pärt’s Tabula Rasa (1977):

Here is the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s performance of Canon of Repentance, which took place June 2 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.