Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears sings “Streets of Berlin” in Bent

Martin Sherman’s classic play “Bent”, about homosexual persecution in Nazi Germany concentration camps, has received a highly acclaimed major revival directed by Moises Kaufman at the Mark Taper Forum in LA.

“Bent” is credited with bringing the barely discussed subject of Nazi persecution and mass murder of homosexuals to mainstream consciousness when the play premiered 1979 in London starring Ian McKellen.  The 1980 Broadway production starred Richard Gere.  The criminally little seen movie adaptation from 1997 starred Clive Owen as well as no other than Mick Jagger in the role of the drag singer Greta.

In the Mark Taper Forum production Greta is played by no other than Jake Shears, the lead singer from my favorite Queertastic Pop/Rock band Scissor Sisters.  Shears was also commissioned to compose new music for the song “Streets of Berlin”, which Greta sings in the play.

Jake Shears as Greta sings “Streets in Berlin” from Bent:

The obvious and appropriate influences of late Weimar era composers like Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler are unmistakeable.  I am also forcibly reminded of Mark Blitzstein’s music for his 1930’s Agitprop musical “The Cradle Will Rock”, due to the particular spikiness of the arrangements (and not merely the English language).  I also find it interesting that Jake Shears sounds a bit like Rufus Wainwright to me here, not something I would generally say about Shear’s vocal stylings as a Scissor Sister.  The style of the song may have something to do with that.

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An ORPHAN MELODY is remembered in POMPEII

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Mark Twain.  Pompeii.  An orphan melody.  What connects these three disparate things?

Wait, what do I mean by an orphan melody?

A week ago Ed plunked the latest Smithsonian magazine next to my breakfast dishes and pointed to its front page article: “The Fall and Rise and Fall of Pompeii”, a richly detailed and illustrated piece about the history of Pompeii’s destruction, its discovery hundreds of years ago, and the new destructive peril it faces because of mismanagement and corruption by the Berlusconi government, plus recent efforts to reverse the second falling of the ancient Roman city.   Ed said: “You could write about this article and your song ‘Remember Me’ from the Mark Twain musical.”

“Remember Me”, the ruins and long lost inhabitants of Pompeii seem to be calling out yet again as their long lost glory and horrible fate, once unearthed to great acclaim, now appears fated again to suffer destruction not due to a massive volcanic eruption but to garden variety human neglect and incompetence.

So let me explain “Remember Me” and how this orphan melody became part of a Mark Twain musical, and why a Mark Twain musical describes the fall of Pompeii.

images-10“Orphan Melodies” are what I call tunes I’ve composed, usually idly humming to myself, which stay with me, haunting me.  Again and again I will think of those unfinished melodies.  Some have been with me for over thirty years even, knocking on my consciousness every now and then so I may sing them again to myself, perhaps with a word or phrase of lyrics attached.  Eventually some find a home in some musical project.  They become complete songs with lyrics; they are performed.  Once that happens, these melodies stop haunting me.  They’ve found completion.

The melody I would later call “Remember Me” came to me on holiday in Israel in 1993.  I was celebrating Passover with my parents and my cousins at a Kibbutz on the Mediterranean.  While I took a walk by the sea, this wistful, romantic melody came to my head.  Unusually for me, it sounded not like a sung melody, but a tune played on the piano.  Even more unusual was that I didn’t hear just the melody line, I also heard accompaniment figures that seemed inextricably tied to the melody.  I imagined this was the love theme of a Gay romantic movie (ironically I would meet Ed and embark on my first full fledged Gay romance myself only a month later).  I located a piano and quickly found the melody and the accompaniment figures on the keyboard.

Remember Me piano theme

I didn’t think this piece would be a song.  It sounded like a piano piece to me.  For years I would play its themes whenever I found time to play for pleasure, “noodle about”, on any given piano, but the music would never evolve beyond the main theme and the B – theme you hear in the above track.  I would play the A theme, the B theme, then repeat, but never found satisfying ways to develop the ideas as a complete solo piano piece.  I toyed with the idea of turning it into an Evocation, a viola piano duet for Ed, but that didn’t seem right either (although now that “Remember Me” is a song, Ed and I have played it for fun, substituting the vocal line with the viola).

beTWAINIn 2006 the Metropolitan Playhouse announced that its second annual Literary Theater Festival would focus on Mark Twain.  I already had had a good experience composing and performing “The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre” for their Poe Festival the previous year.  What might I attempt with Mark Twain?  My first thought was this title: “beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN” (and its spell-check defying lettering).  What kind of Mark Twain musical would have that title?  How about one that adapted not his famous novels, but many of his lesser known short stories into a revue style musical?  I started reading a whole lot of Twain short stories and finding those I liked which either sparked new song ideas or attached themselves winningly to existing orphan melodies for further development.   Eventually Act One of “beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN” would focus on stories from Twain’s frontier experience in the American West, and Act Two would adapt “The Innocents Abroad”, Twain’s episodic account of the first American cruise ship journey all around the Mediterranean.

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THE SUMMER OF FROG – How a grand musical for 35 performers became a better musical for 6.

Version 2

The summer of ’84 I stayed home alone in Berlin while my parents left on vacation.  It was my choice to spend the six week break between my junior and senior high school year spending 8-14 hours every day working on writing the arrangements for a 15 piece orchestra for my musical Once Upon a Frog.  I had been told that without these orchestrations Once Upon a Frog would not be considered as the John F. Kennedy School’s next English language musical production.  I might as well have been told if I managed to pick all the lentils out the ashes I would be allowed to go to the ball.  The promise was an empty one, but I didn’t think about that and sacrificed my summer to write orchestrations that would never be played.

I have already written about growing up in West-Berlin, Germany, loving musicals and participating in the musical productions at the German-American school I attended.  Shortly before my 15th birthday I started writing a musical of my own, Once Upon a Frog.  Within a few months I’d invited our school’s drama director Mr. Bishop and the current music director for school musicals Mr. Poland to my home and, with the help of my opera singer mother, performed some of the songs from Once Upon a Frog for them, in hopes of winning them over to the idea of it being performed on John F. Kennedy School’s main stage, much the same way the high school had put on Bye Bye Birdie, Guys and Dolls or Oklahoma previously.

I was writing a show suitable for our school stage, with lots of leading solo singing parts (ten, I recall) and a big chorus, to provide students with as many performing opportunities as possible, just as previous musical productions had done.  There tended to be a total of about 35 cast members on stage each time JFKS put on a musical.  High School musical productions were my whole world.  I lived for them, performed in them, made my friends in them.  It was my highest aspiration at the time that a musical I created would be produced at the John F. Kennedy School.

Version 3Mr. Bishop offered to meet with me regularly to help work on the script of Once Upon a Frog.  By the time I had completed a piano/vocal score and libretto I was in 11th grade, and a new teacher had been hired to act as music director for JFK S’ musical productions.  This was Mr. M– .  I would rather not give his full name.

Mr. Bishop told me we would need Mr. M– to agree to put on Once Upon a Frog as the school’s next musical in my senior year.  So I told Mr. M– about my show and offered to play or give him the score.  Mr. M– told me he could not consider doing Once Upon a Frog unless it could be done with the same kind of full orchestra we had just used for our most recent musical production South Pacific.  That had been a 15 piece orchestra: flute, three clarinets, alto saxophone, two trumpets, trombone, percussion, piano, two violins, viola, cello and double bass.  Mr. M– told me I would have to provide him with a fully orchestrated score before he could even consider whether to agree to music direct Once Upon a Frog.

Now, can we just sit back and raise our eyebrows at the unreasonableness of this demand?  No Broadway producer, or theatrical professional of any stripe, demands to see a fully orchestrated score to evaluate a musical’s viability.  They look at the script.  They look at a piano/vocal score.  Heck, most Broadway musicals are not even orchestrated by the composers themselves.  Even granting the importance Mr. M– placed on leading a 15 piece orchestra during the high school musical performances, the ethical thing to do would have been to evaluate Once Upon a Frog’s script and songs, make a preliminary yes or no decision and, if it’s a yes, then deal with the issue of orchestrations.

It is now obvious to me that Mr. M– had no intention of music directing a student written musical regardless of its quality.   But he also didn’t want to be the one to say no.  He figured it was highly unlikely a 17 year old would write out orchestrations for a 15 piece orchestra for a full length musical with nearly 20 songs, all by himself.  As unlikely as picking a bowl’s worth of lentils out of a heap of ashes.  I would fail on my own and the question would be moot.  He wouldn’t need to say no.

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An appreciation of E. L. DOCTOROW and RAGTIME, the book and the musical

E. L. Doctorow, 1931 - 2015

E. L. Doctorow, 1931 – 2015

E. L. Doctorow, one of the giants of contemporary literature has passed.  I have read nine of his twelve books, a ratio and record I have equaled in passion and loyalty with only two other contemporary authors, John Irving and J. K. Rowling.  I intend to catch up with those three as of yet unread Doctorow books (I love books but I am not a voracious reader and my “want-to-read” list only keeps growing…).

Ragtime bookE. L. Doctorow’s most famous work, “Ragtime”, was the first “grown-up” book I read.  I was either ten or eleven years old when I picked up my parents’ already well-worn paperback edition.  I was enthralled by the sprawling historical fiction that mixed historical and imagined characters and events in a glorious literary melting pot.  The prose was intelligent and the storytelling complex, yet the language was not only deceptively easy to read, it practically pulled me along.  I wasn’t following the text, it was taking me along on a ride. And what a ride! Such a sprawling epic of the beginning of the American 20th Century, full of colorful, diverse characters and incidents!  As such Ragtime made an excellent introduction to sophisticated adult literature for a boy who was a casual book reader at best.

squareI quickly moved on to Doctorow’s debut novel, the wry western “Welcome to Hard Times”, and then hit a wall when I attempted “The Book of Daniel”.  Here Doctorow’s prose changed completely.  It was too dense and difficult for me at that age.  I learned that Doctorow was a writer who would change literary styles and voices for each novel, sometimes quite dramatically.  His most popular historical novels like Ragtime or The March or World’s Fair are written in beautiful prose that effortlessly draws you in to a richly told tale.  Loon Lake’s prose, like The Book of Daniel, was tougher and dense.  City of God made heavy intellectual demands, changing literary styles again and again within itself.

My most sensually delightful experience with E. L. Doctorow was reading Billy Bathgate.  Billy Bathgate has sentences that stretch out over half a page; but instead of losing the thread of the thought as I might with other writers’ over-long constructions, reading Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate sentences was like swimming along in a delicious stream of thick and smooth honey mead.  I’m not kidding, it really felt that visceral to me.

Ragtime movieBut Ragtime will probably always remain my favorite E. L. Doctorow novel, understandable considering the impact it had on me at a young age.  I actually haven’t reread it yet since then (perhaps I should or perhaps I should not mess with the childhood memory).  I did see the movie version and the musical adaptation.  I remember my parents and me being disappointed with the movie Ragtime.  Perhaps unconnected to the novel it would be a fine movie, but I remember how jarring it felt to see whole lead characters and story lines from the book excised while minor characters and incidents from the book took up huge amounts of screen time.   The movie Ragtime took elements from the book but didn’t capture its scope or point of view.

Granting how difficult it may be to adapt a sprawling historical novel for the screen successfully, it is probably even harder to do so for the musical stage.  But the musical Ragtime succeeds where the movie doesn’t, translating the stories and the scope and the ideas of the novel brilliantly for the stage.

Prologue – Ragtime

 

From Ragtime's opening number, not the original Broadway production, but representative

From Ragtime’s opening number, not the original Broadway production, but representative

The opening number of the musical Ragtime musically and dramatically brilliantly sets up the dynamics of the story, introducing the three major population groups – upper class, African-American and Immigrant – that will define the narrative, all the lead characters who will dominate the plot as well as real-life historical characters who will influence events.  After the seven minute mark all the various ethnic and social groups have been mixed up by Graciela Daniele’s brilliant musical staging but they then recoil at this “melting” together back into their constituent groups, which then engage in a kind of trio dance off between three antagonistic mass organisms.  This was a masterful moment of staging in the original Broadway production of Ragtime, a musical that is, as far as I can tell, only one of two artistically successful Broadway musical adaptations of sprawling historical epics (that world-wide phenomenon with the French title, you know the one, is the other).

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The Music of Ian McKellen reciting Shakespeare (hear! hear! right here!)

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My birthday buddy, Ian McKellen

Ian McKellen just quoted Shakespeare to make a strong point about Immigration.

Marc Maron interviewed Ian McKellen on the WTF podcast.  Maron confessed he had trouble understanding Shakespeare, and McKellen suggested Moran may have not yet heard Shakespeare spoken by someone who knew what they are doing.  And so McKellen made sure to recite a Shakespeare speech for Maron, winning him over to the fact that yes, Shakespeare can be understood when you listen to a great actor.

The section of

The section of “Sir Thomas More” in Shakespeare’s hand.

Maron would later describe the performance, in fact the whole interview, as “wonderful”.  But it was also rather sly.  Of all the Shakespeare speeches McKellen could have recited, he chose a speech from the play “Thomas More” on which at least a half dozen different playwrights are believed to have had a hand in writing.  The section McKellen quotes from is almost certainly in Shakespeare’s hand, since it is one of the few Shakespeare selections from which we still have a copy in his original handwriting.

But why quote a speech from Shakespeare that isn’t even from one of his (completely) own plays?  Perhaps because in addition to being beautifully written, it is also a speech about Immigration, specifically addressing those in the native population who would want to get rid of “those immigrants”.  As such it carries a powerful message.

And so Ian McKellen (who just happens to share a birth date with me, quite incidentally, and not to the point, but I can’t help it, that tidbit tickles me!) managed to make a strong moral point, important to the current social and political situation in the USA and Great Britain, and indeed most of the world today, merely by doing what he is most famous for, reciting Shakespeare beautifully.  He didn’t actually make any incidental remark about current affairs on immigration, but it wasn’t necessary.  He let Shakespeare carry the message, underlining it by his choice of text and his peerless delivery.

Here is the pertinent part of the interview, including McKellen’s recitation; and below selections from the text (you’ll note that McKellen skips over a few lines in the middle):

———

MORE: Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise

Hath chid down all the majesty of England;

Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,

Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,

Plodding tooth ports and costs for transportation,

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THE ENDURING POPULARITY OF DRAGONS IN KINDERGARTEN – The Fairy Tale Opera 2

wizard and dragonEvery year when I start the Fairy Tale Opera project in Kindergarten (at the Brooklyn Children’s School), I ask the class to make a long list of characters that appear in fairy tales.  Then the kindergartners choose three characters around which to build their original fairy tale (They also choose two places and one type of magic).  Two out of three classes will invariably choose Dragon as one of their three characters (the second most popular character is Princess).  This year is no different.  Two of this year’s three Fairy Tale Operas feature dragons.  As well as wizards.  But where one class chose a mermaid as their third main character, the other chose a knight.  And the stories as well as the characterizations of both wizard and dragon could not have been more different between the two classes.  I already shared the first class’ mermaid’s tale of woe, bothered and besieged by a covetous wizard and hungry dragon.   Let’s now tell the Tale of the Dragon and the Wizard Who Save the Village:

THE WIZARD AND THE DRAGON

 

THE WIZARD AND THE DRAGON (4 tongue clicks)

THE DRAGON AND THE WIZARD (4 tongue clicks…)

——

THE DRAGON DRAGON IS HELPING THE WIZARD

THANK YOU THANK YOU FOR HELPING ME

THE WIZARD WIZARD IS FEEDING THE DRAGON

THANK YOU THANK YOU FOR FEEDING ME

——

THE WIZARD AND THE DRAGON

THE DRAGON AND THE WIZARD

 ——

THE DRAGON HELPS THE WIZARD MAKE POTIONS

THE WIZARD HELPS THE PEOPLE WITH POTIONS

THE POTIONS HELP THE PEOPLE WITH PROBLEMS

THE WIZARD HELPS THE PEOPLE WITH MAGIC

 ——

THE WIZARD AND THE DRAGON

THE DRAGON AND THE WIZARD

 ——

THE DRAGON DRAGON IS HELPING THE WIZARD

THANK YOU THANK YOU FOR HELPING ME

THE WIZARD WIZARD IS FEEDING THE DRAGON

THANK YOU THANK YOU FOR FEEDING ME

 ——

THE WIZARD AND THE DRAGON

THE DRAGON AND THE WIZARD

The wizard lives in a cave with his friend the dragon.  The dragon’s fire helps the wizard make potions which help the villagers get better when they are sick.

The nearby knights of the castle however are scared of dragons and when they realize there is one living in the cave they want to get rid of it.

The knights attempt to force the wizard to give up the dragon.  The wizard tries to convince the knights that this is a good dragon, but they don’t believe it.

Then suddenly there is a cry: the bad knights are coming!

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SEE JANE RUN. RUN JANE RUN! DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE! ——— SEE JOHN SLIDE. SLIDE JOHN SLIDE! THRU THE LOOKING GLASS!

A- RH 1A - LG 1

Jane Allison goes down the rabbit hole.  John Allison slips through the looking glass.  Or rather a Prohibition era version of rabbit hole and looking glass, as employed in the musical “Speakeasy”, a roaring twenties riff on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books.  Carroll’s Alice makes these trips into Wonderland out of boredom and curiosity.  For Jane and John Allison there is what scriptwriters often call an “inciting event” which helps propel Jane towards her rabbit hole and John through his looking glass.  Jane kisses her neighbor Roberta White.  John has sex in a public restroom.

A RH 3

Before these erotically inciting events we have been introduced to John and Jane Allison as a reasonably happy and perhaps sexually naïve newlywed couple.  They already experience what I jokingly called their first “Twilight Zone” moment, hinting at the Wonderland magical realist fantasy to come, when the crooner Chet Cheshire (“Speakeasy’s” version of the Cheshire Cat) is heard singing the song “Keep Me Warm” on the radio, while the audience is treated to a quick theatrical montage of John’s day at work and Jane’s day alone at home.

A - LG 2“Keep Me Warm” is a song that I had rattling around in my imagination for many years, one of the “Orphan Tunes” that helped inspire the writing of “Speakeasy” It very much sounds like a song from the 1920’s employing language in the lyrics typical of that era.  But these lyrics are rather more explicit about cruising for one night stands than even Cole Porter would have dared to detail in those days (although Porter’s sly lyrical evocations of alternative sexual behavior is certainly an inspiration to me; all hail Cole Porter!).

Keep Me Warm

Lyric excerpt from “Keep Me Warm”:

I FOUND MYSELF WAND’RING ALONE IN THE DARK

UNTIL I WAS SUDDENLY STRUCK BY THE SPARK IN YOUR EYES

A LOOK THAT SAID IF WE ARE BOLD TODAY

WE COULD KEEP ALL OF THE FEAR AND THE COLD AWAY

AND IF WE DON’T SPEAK WE’LL BE TELLING NO LIES

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EVOCATION I – Happy Birthday, Ed, Now Pull Out Your Viola!

Ed and Danny in VT

Today is my husband Edward Elder’s birthday.  He is the mustachioed fellow in the picture above.  One of my birthday gifts for him is a new viola/piano duet.  He plays the viola, I play the piano.  It has become a tradition in our relationship that I compose a new viola piano duet for him every year for his birthday.  I call these pieces “Evocations”.  Today Ed will receive Evocation XXII.

E1 aEvocation I was composed in 1994, a little over a year after we had started dating.  At the time I still wrote my scores by hand with special pencils that were darker than your standard #2 pencil (I liked #5 pencils).  By 1998 my then employer for teaching artist work insisted I start writing out scores on the computer, and I learned how to use the Finale ’98 music scoring program.  I didn’t upgrade from Finale ‘98 until last year (which gives you an idea of how resistant to technological change I can be before finally making the leap forward… and then probably getting all resistant yet again).  I now work with Finale 2014 and decided to write out computer printed versions of the first several handwritten Evocation scores.

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The original handwritten Evocation I

One positive feature of the upgrade is the vastly improved sound in the playback function.  The string instrument actually sounds much like a real string instrument, not some screechy synthesizer alien.  Even on my recently purchased sophisticated keyboard I find the string sounds, especially the solo string sounds, less than desirable (which is why I don’t use them as much as I wish I could on the Speakeasy demo recordings).  But the Finale 2014 viola almost convinces me it is the real thing.  Now, it is far from perfect, you can probably still tell that it is a machine playing, not a human.  There is no such thing as great subtlety or feeling or give and take on timing (the crescendo and diminuendos in the first two and last two measures leave much to be desired, as does the computer’s apparent disregard of the direction “Largo” – ah, well).  But I think it is OK enough to share the track with you here.  Someday I would like to record these babies with professional musicians in the studio.  Someday when I have the resources…

EVOCATION I – (as played by the computer)

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A SPREE FOREST MUSICAL EXCURSION Part 4 (It’s been epic, wouldn’t you say…?)

SW 26

And we are back for the final installment of our musical and photographic excursion into the Spreewald(lieder) – Spree Forest (Suite).

(Head here and here and here for the first three parts.)

Elysee picThe Duo Elysée performed Spreewaldlieder in concert on numerous occasions in Germany.  My parents and many friends in Germany attended some of these concerts, but I was not in the country for any of them.

My niece Linden happens to play the harp and decided to do a concert of the Spree Forest Suite as her senior harp project with another college senior who played the flute.  An army of my in-laws attended that concert at Linden’s college graduation, but I was unable to leave New York because of performance commitments of my own.

So Spreewaldlieder has been performed many times but I myself have never heard it live.  To finally hear what I have composed I have relied on the studio recording of the suite Duo Elysée included on their cd “Reisen in Fantasie und Gegenwart” (“Journeys in Fantasy and Present Time” – email CDRoloff@gmx.de to order a cd).

Meanwhile Ed and I have visited the Spreewald at least three times already.

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SPREEWALDLIEDER – SPREE FOREST SUITE (conclusion)

X  Wiesenblüten – Wild Flowers

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SL 10This piece gave me the opportunity to employ a harp effect that has one of the coolest names in music, the bisbigliando.  The bisbigliando (I just had to type that again) is a rapid tremolo between two or more strings played quietly in the middle or upper registers of the harp.  I of course asked the harpist to play the bisbigliando (weee!) with both hands on all seven pitches of the set scale, while the flute plays a low floating tune.  Then I found a way to employ harp harmonics again.

SW 25

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A SPREE FOREST MUSICAL EXCURSION Part 3

And we’re back for Part 3 of the Spree Forest day trip and the Spreewaldlieder song cycle for flute and harp.  (Head back here for Part 1 and Part 2)

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My favorite compliment I have received for the Spreewaldlieder song cycle for flute and harp was from the harpist.  She appreciated the way I composed for the harp.  Harpists often complain about composers not taking into consideration the particular technical intricacies of the harp when composing for the instrument.   I made sure I did my homework.

harp 1Although harps can cover a range from very low to very high pitch that nearly matches the grand piano, one can’t play or strum through all those pitches in one fell swoop.  Of the 12 tones between each octave only a maximum of 7 can be selected at any one time for play on the harp.  Each harp string is capable of sounding three different pitches, depending on the three different settings the harp’s pedals are set in.  If the D string has its pedal set to D#, every D string in every octave on the harp will sound as a D#.  Therefore depending on the pedal settings any variety of a 7 tone scale can be set to play on the harp (or fewer than 7 unique tones; it is possible to set two different strings to the same pitch, for example by setting the F string up to F# and the G string down to G-flat).

3 of a harp's 7 pedals

3 of a harp’s 7 pedals

At the beginning of each piece in Spreewaldlieder you can see the pitch settings for each of the seven pedals of the harp written above the upper harp staff.  If a pedal pitch shift is required, it is indicated in the score by the new pitch marking.  The harpist changes to the new pitch by shifting the pedal position with their foot.  A conscientious composer will keep pedal shifts to no more than two at a time at most (since most harpist usually have the use of only two feet at a time), and will try to place the shifts during rests or between phrases, not in the middle of a musical phrase or run.  I was a conscientious composer, and Eva from the Duo Elysée appreciated that.  As well as the variety of technical and expressive playing I tried to incorporate into the suite.

harp 3

SPREEWALDLIEDER – SPREE FOREST SUITE (continued)

VII  Leichte Brise – Light Breeze

SL 7For the light breeze I wrote four melodic phrases for the flute that I hoped would capture the feeling of a gentle meandering breeze.  First the flute plays alone, then on the repeat the harp joins in with glissandi in both hands up and down the instrument, perhaps to capture the effect of the breeze on grass fields.  I thought the flautist would take a quick breath between each of the four musical phrases, but Ulrich rather impressively chose to play through them all in one breath.

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A SPREE FOREST MUSICAL EXCURSION Part 2

Welcome back to the Spree Forest and the Spreewaldlieder song cycle for flute and harp.  (Head here for Part 1 if you missed it.)

SW 9When I got the commission from the Duo Elysée I was excited to compose for flute and especially harp, for which I had never composed before, and whose particular properties I had only just recently coincidentally studied.  Dividing the composition into twelve short pieces each devoted to a different aspect of the Spree Forest experience allowed me to explore a variety of colors and playing techniques for both instruments in discreet sections.  I wasn’t necessarily intending to paint musical pictures with the pieces, although the titles for each piece certainly suggest that some of that is going on.  I was more interested in allowing each of the twelve titles or images to elicit an organic, internal musical response, influenced by a particular tack of expressive playing.

Let’s continue our day trip in the Spreewald(lieder):

SPREEWALDLIEDER – SPREE FOREST SUITE (continued)

IV   Senf- und Knoblauchgurken – The Pickle Barrel

SL 4The main food delicacy of the Spreewald is pickles.  This detail usually provokes a wince whenever I tell people, but the thing is those Spreewaldpickles are GOOD!  I’m not a big fan of pickles in general, but these varieties are superb.  I especially love the honey, mustard, and garlic pickles, so I named this duet after two of those.  Throwing in a piece about pickles also allowed for some lightening of the mood after all the languorous beauty of the landscape.  It also inspired some cheeky technical flourishes for the musicians, in particular the flutter-tonguing on the flute and the rapid up/down strumming on tone clusters on the harp.  Trying to capture both the sweet and sour nature of those delicious pickles.

Ed:

Ed: ” Mmmm, Pickles!”

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A SPREE FOREST MUSICAL EXCURSION Part 1

SW 1

Painted map of the Spreewald

Let’s take a musical trip to the one-of-a-kind Spreewald.  The Spreewald (AKA the Spree Forest) is a gorgeous region, a kind of rural Venice located an hour southeast of Berlin, Germany in the source of the Spree River (which flows straight through Berlin).  We all know Venice as a city in the water, with impressive architecture crisscrossed by canals and waterways large and small.  The Spreewald is the farm country equivalent, with picturesque farms, fields and villages crisscrossed and accessible only by canals and waterways.

Elysee picIn 2007 the Duo Elysée, the flautist Ulrich Roloff and the harpist Eva Curth-Ignatjeva, commissioned me to compose a duet for flute and harp.  Inspired by a recent trip to the Spreewald I decided to compose a suite of 12 short pieces, a song cycle for flute and harp musically describing a day in the Spreewald.

I called it Spreewaldlieder – Spree Forest Suite.

In this four part blog series (it feels kind of highfalutin to use the term “four part blog series”, doesn’t it, or should I say in this case: high-flutin’?) let’s take a musical as well as photographic trip through the wonderful Spreewald.

SPREEWALDLIEDER – SPREE FOREST SUITE

I  Ankunft – Arrival

A little fanfare for the arrival by train (or car) of the day trippers at Lübbenau, the main access point into the Spreewald.  We’ll hear that theme again near the end of the song cycle, albeit transformed.

“Little Spree Palace”

SL 1

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II  Kahnfahrt – Boat on the Wide Canal

SW 3 Continue reading

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