I always say, perhaps only in half-jest, that in my next life I will be a Tabla player. Though I am a South-Asian with an exclusively Western Classical musical training, I grew up with the sounds of Indian Classical music in my ear. The various elements of Western music, such as harmony, texture etc., have undergone both unceasing evolutions and drastic revolutions throughout history. The classical music of the Indian subcontinent, however, focuses primarily on two of these elements: melody (set in ‘raga’), and rhythm (set in ‘tala’). From a Western perspective it is perhaps unusual to listen to a music that concerns itself, not with the type of multi-voice counterpoint we expect from Bach or Brahms, but rather the rich, nuanced interplay of melody and rhythm. I was drawn instantly to its unique rhythmic language. Over the years, as I delved deeper, I was awed by the great rhythm virtuosi of the North Indian tradition, and developed an obsession for the music associated with the king of Indian percussion instruments: the tabla. The word ‘rupaktaal‘ is bipartite: taal, meaning ‘set in a rhythmic cycle’, and rupak meaning ‘of seven beats’. In a traditional solo tabla recital, the taal is maintained by an accompanist who plays an underlying, cyclic melody, which continues throughout the percussion soloist’s many rhythmic and virtuosic variations. ‘Colour Study in RupakTaal‘ establishes such a melody at the outset, in the left hand, rather like a ground-bass. Soon afterwards, a second melodic line is established, representing the rhythmic variations of the tabla. For a few minutes, the two melodic lines are heard separately before being heard in counterpoint for the rest of the piece; the right hand weaving its tabla-inspired patterns around the ground-bass. The nature of the original tabla composition is such that the two lines are always in counterpoint. The ground-bass remains in one tempo, while each repetition of the right hand tabla line appears at a faster tempo at each successive repetition. The effect is a sense of acceleration from slow to as-fast-as-possible, with the right hand constantly changing into ‘higher gears’. True to a traditional tabla recital, there are moments of resolution after every few cycles, when the endings of both lines coincide as precisely and climactically as the tabla soloist can make them. Although the piano is simultaneously playing both the character of ‘tabla soloist’ and ‘sympathetic accompanist’, it was never my intention to recreate a traditional Indian tabla composition for the piano. I have chosen instead to use the original rhythmic concept – i.e. one line which accelerates incrementally away from another – as a scaffolding upon which one can experiment quite liberally with colour, as the title suggests.”
Featuring music composed by Emily Suzanne Shapiro and words by Edward Gorey, “Utter Zoo” is wonderfully strange and intriguing. Contributing artists include declaimist, Megalodipticus, and two talented musicians, Elizabeth Brown (oboe, english horn), and Emily Shapiro (clarinet, bass clarinet). The movements are: Ampoo / Boggerslosh / Epitwee / Fidknop / Humglum. Mixing and mastering was done by Alexis Hählen.
Program notes from Emily:
When I started writing Utter Zoo in 2008, I’d long been wanting to start composing more actively but was at a loss about how to begin. I found a lucky perfect combination of inspirations in my obsession with Edward Gorey, my friendship with Elizabeth and Meghan, and another collection of short pieces (17 one minute pieces for bass clarinet and casio mt750 by Christopher Hobbs). I loved the idea of minute-long pieces as a fun and lighthearted way to play with different ideas. Oboe and bass clarinet seemed like the ideal mix of sounds to match Edward Gorey’s work, although I’ve taken advantage of the doubling potential of both players to add some variety to the sonic pallet and give me more flexibility to express the different characters. Elizabeth and Meghan had the right skills and could (and twelve years later, still can) be counted on to be up for a strange and silly creative project.
Edward Gorey’s Utter Zoo is a collection of very short poems about imaginary animals- one for every letter of the alphabet. At first I imagined that I could write all 26 pieces in one go, but that proved extremely over-ambitious. I wrote and premiered the first six pieces in 2008 (at a farewell concert in a cafe called Our Town in East Vancouver the day before I moved to Montreal) and wrote another four in 2018. My hope is to keep chipping away at this project, and one day finish all 26. The four new pieces (Boggerslosh, Epitwee, Mork and Posby) have never been performed so this project is their world premiere.
The inspirations and composition processes for each individual piece varied widely. Ampoo and Quingawaga came about in very organic ways and were composed almost exclusively by ear. I was stuck on how to end Ampoo for a long time and was extremely frustrated, but one day the answer came to me, seemingly out of the blue, while I was sitting on the bus. Others were almost formulaic – for Yawfle, I decided that a relentlessly repeating rhythmic cell was the right way to express the absurd repeating “and stares” in the poem. I picked a tonality that went with character and picked a rhythm and the piece almost wrote itself. For Ulp I imagined a waltz in the style of the Amelie soundtrack, but I gave it a twist by laying down a melody in 5/4 time over the 3/4 accompaniment, adding a little quirky crunch to the nostalgic sweetness.
In addition to the 99 B-line bus in Vancouver and the usual practice rooms/home studios, I’ve worked on this piece in the dressing room before performing in a Balinese gamelan concert and at least six cafes spread between Vancouver and London
“Well, that brought me back!! I used to walk around the lake every day for exercise. The pictures were very beautiful and worked great with the music. This video is a nostalgic experience, seeing the pictures. Wascana Park is indeed a beautiful place to go for walks. We used to be able to skate on the lake in the winter and once a week, the fire department would come and smooth out the surface. It was the Waskimo Festival with ice sculptures and various other activities, but then we had a couple of warm winters where the lake wasn’t safe although I gather it’s been pretty cold there lately. I just looked it up and it did start up again.”
Night Music for piano (2021) was created during the Covid-19 pandemic. Feeling nostalgic, I was drawn to night themes and music from the past. The composition is in the form of a piano sonata, but each of the four movements also functions as an independent character piece. Night Music was written for and dedicated to the wonderful Argentinian/Canadian pianist Alexander Panizza. Due to Toronto’s restrictions concerning live concerts, it was composed to be premiered on the Scarborough Philharmonic Orchestra’s YouTube channel. Echoes of Film Noir was inspired by the dramatic, gripping, and multi-layered music commonly found in this genre. Film noir was commonly set in dark locations and shot in black and white. In creating music for my fantasy nighttime crime drama, I used a traditional sonata allegro form for the structure. The movement starts with a first theme representing a hardboiled detective, followed by a second theme representing a “femme fatale”. The rest of the movement allows for the music (and the story) to develop, build to a climax, and come to a conclusion. I invite listeners to create their own stories.
The stories in these pieces were told by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov between the years 1806 and 1810. They originated in the oral tradition of Hassidism, and were later written down by Rabbi Nachman’s chief disciple and scribe, Rabbi Nathan Sternhartz. They have been hailed as bringing Jewish literature into modernity, and were highly valued by the later Czech-Jewish novelist Franz Kafka.
Rabbi Nachman’s purpose in telling these stories, however, was not literary. Instead, for him such story-telling ” …contributes(s) to the restoration (tikkun) of this shattered world in which all mankind ﬁnds itself. The tale has the power of redemption; telling the tale is, in essence, a redemptive act.” (Dr. A. J. Band, introduction to the Paulist Press translation of the tales.)
For reasons of musical story-telling, I have chosen three of the simplest of the Rabbi’s tales. (In fact, they are all so short that they are usually left out of modern collections of the Rabbi’s stories.) My approach to the stories was to imagine them as if they were short animated ﬁlms, and to write the music accordingly. I hope I have succeeded at least as far as making them listenable, entertaining, and fun.
Three Tales of Rabbi Nachman was written for the Scarborough Philharmonic Orchestra Wind Ensemble in 2022.
For the December 3, 2022 Holiday Concert, the Scarborough Philharmonic Orchestra will be performing one of the three musical tales, The Turkey Prince.
THE TURKEY PRINCE
(duration: 4 minutes)
Although it was not included in the original collection of 13 Tales, The Turkey Prince has become perhaps the most popular of Rabbi Nachman’s stories, as evidenced by the many variations and commentaries now available online.
Perhaps the simplest and most direct commentary comes from Yossy Gordon on chabad.org ” Fortunately, most of us don’t suffer from turkey complexes. But here’s a question we can all ask of ourselves: Am I limiting my potential because of my self perception?”
- The Turkey;
- The Wise Doctor;
- Making Friends;
- On the Mend;
- Cured Turkey!