About the Music
In memory of
Kokengada Beliappa Subbayya
Marek Zdzislaw Chwastek
- two souls who are deeply embedded in this work.
We all have stories. They grow out of us like unseen limbs.
This album is an homage to the idea of histories – those stories that make up our DNA, and which are unseen and unknown by others. These stories are often painful, and often beautiful.
My grief over the death of my father, following a deeply complicated and troubled relationship, permeates every moment and every particle of me. It is me. Likewise, the joy I felt when I first held in my hands, and devoured, my grandfather's own editions of Rabindranath Tagore, is me. I discovered my grandfather in books.
This album is my journey of exploring these stories - an all-consuming grief, and the joy of discovering that which I never knew - Marek and K.B. Subbayya.
We all have hidden stories. Histories honors them.
Jaunpuri (Rendition of a Raga) (2012, revised 2015) is a composition based on a traditional Indian raga and rare, old vocal composition. Jaunpuri combines Western compositional structures, notation and harmony with the basic structures and materials of Indian classical music including raga (a melodic archetype), tala (rhythmic cycle), bandish (fixed melodic composition), gamak (melodic embellishments), and taan (virtuosic riffs).
The work is based on a tarana bandish, a special style of vocal composition, in raga Jaunpuri. Raga Jaunpuri is similar to the Aeolian mode, or Western natural minor scale, but omits the note Ga (3rd scale degree) in the ascending scale. With the exception of the opening chorale, the entire work is in jhaptal, a 10-beat tala (rhythmic cycle). This rare composition is considered one of hundreds of family treasures of the Kirana gharana (a prominent musical lineage) and was sung by the great Abdul Karim Khan. I learned it by ear in 2006 from my teacher Ustad Mashkoor Ali Khan, who is a senior vocal guru of the Sangeet Research Academy in Kolkata in India, and at the American Academy of Indian Classical Music in New York.
As with the lyrics for most tarana bandish, the wording for the asthayee (first part) are musical syllables without any literal meaning. The lyrics for the antra (second part), however, are in Farsi, and refer to the romantic and tragic Persian fable of Layla & Majnun. Besides a deep love for this particular bandish, one of the reasons I chose this raga is that the modern equal tempered piano tuning is not too distant from the correct tuning of the notes according to the Pythagorean tuning that is often used for this mode in Indian music. In addition to the raga, tala, and bandish, the work also uses taans, fast melodic riffs that would normally be improvised by the vocalist, but which are notated for the piano in this case, and the use of tihai, which are riffs repeated three times so that the last note ends on the downbeat. Elements of Western music, such as the introductory chorale, harmony, and counterpoint are added to fill in for what the piano lacks in terms of sustaining a vocal melody and gliding between the notes, which is truly the essence of raga.
I composed the original version of Jaunpuri in 2012, during a residency at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire for pianist Kimball Gallagher’s tour of South East Asia and India. A version for piano, Indian vocals, tabla and tanpura was completed and premiered at Carnegie Hall in April 2015. The new version heard on this album was completed in June 2015.
- Michael Harrison
She is Asleep (1943) is a haunting duet for prepared piano and voice – a wordless vocal line, on improvised vowels, conversing with a percussive piano. Together, the two parts weave a narrative that is somehow pensive and simple, and still deeply emotive. Despite the limited palette, and perhaps partly because of it (the piano part encompasses just four notes, all with the same preparation), the music remains evocative.
For me, this work is highly spiritual and most akin to a call to prayer. The undulating vocal line and prepared piano create a hypnotic sound world that seduced me the first time I heard it. Its simplicity and improvisatory nature feels intimate, as if the thoughts being expressed are of a deeply inward conviction, to which the listener suddenly becomes privy. But we are drawn into this intimate conversation, and join these two souls in this quiet, prayerful moment.
The sound of the piano was created by threading thin strips of rubber between the strings of the notes used in the piece.
She is Asleep was originally conceived as a multi-movement work, but was never completed. The completed movements that we have are a percussion quartet – Quartet for 12 Tom-Toms – and this duet. A Room, also found on this album, was originally going to be the third part of She is Asleep.
- Sophia Vastek
Hijaz Prelude (2011) was inspired by Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel Im Spiegel and uses a similar organically generative structure involving Pärt’s tintinnabulli style of composition. This style is similar to the gradual progression used to introduce the notes in the alap, or non-metrical introduction, of the performance of a raga. The work combines rich modal harmonies in raga Hijaz Bhairav (also known as the Hijaz mode in Arabic music) and the keyboard figuration from J. S. Bach’s Prelude in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1.
- Michael Harrison
A Room (1943) was originally going to be the third part of She is Asleep, a multi-movement work that Cage never completed. The completed second movement, She is Asleep, a duet for voice and prepared piano, is also on this recording.
This piece is part of John Cage’s canon of monumental and innovative works for prepared piano. In the late 1930’s, John Cage began experimenting with placing objects in between the strings of the piano as a way of expanding the musical language of the instrument. It was a revelation that would inform the rest of his career, and have lasting reverberations in music through to the present.
In A Room, the directions are explicit. Bolts, screws, rubber strips, and weather-stripping are placed at exact locations. The effect is an otherworldly sound unlike anything else.
- Sophia Vastek
From John Cage:
“When I first placed objects between piano strings, it was with the desire to possess sounds (to be able to repeat them). But, as the music left my home and went from piano to piano and from pianist to pianist, it became clear that not only are two pianists essentially different from one another, but two pianos are not the same either. Instead of the possibility of repetition, we are faced in life with the unique qualities and characteristics of each occasion.
The prepared piano, impressions I had from the work of artist friends, study of Zen Buddhism, ramblings in fields and forests of mushrooms, all led me to the enjoyment of things as they come, as they happen, rather than as they are possessed or kept or forced to be.”*
*This text was written in 1972 as a foreword for Richard Bunger’s The Well-Prepared Piano (The Colorado College Music Press, Colorado Springs, 1973; reprinted Litoral Arts Press, 1981). It was slightly changed for reprinting in John Cage, Empty Words: Writings ’73-’78 (Wesleyan University Press, 1979), and has been further revised for the present circumstance.
© 2012 John Cage Trust. All rights reserved
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Stainless Staining (2007) is a work for piano and fixed soundtrack by composer Donnacha Dennehy. The backing tape consists of layers of pre-recorded piano - retuned and played in a number of different ways. The resulting effect, in which the live piano intricately fits, creates a massive harmonic spectrum of 100 overtones based on a low G#. At its core, the piece is a pulsating exploration of this fundamental note.
The repetitive structures and pulsing rhythms have the effect of creating a high-energy mantra, one that might be sung or spoken with the most ecstatic of convictions.
- Sophia Vastek