Getting bowls to sing

I was tempted once, to buy a collection of classical music CDs to educate myself. I must have been reading Morse at the time and was quite envious of his appreciation and ability to quickly identify various works by the great composers. I didn’t though. I should have, but I didn’t.

On my list of things to do before I die is to write lyrics that someone far more talented than I could then put to music. Words I’m comfortable with; it’s music that’s beyond me. That said, the composition process fascinates me, particularly for orchestral and operatic pieces. Getting all those instruments to work together, creating a piece of music that infiltrates the very fibre of a listener’s being and stays with them for ever …that takes talent. And dedication. And when there are crystal bowls involved…

Invited to visit Atlanta, GA, for a month, Italian composer Lucio Ivaldi managed to compose the outline of a complete opera score while he was there. Handel and The Messiah come to mind. Ivaldi was the guest of Honora and Dahlan Foah, the genius duo behind the DNA opera, the Birth of Color, which premiered in Budapest last year. I was one of the fortunates to get tickets to the first of three sold-out gigs. It was a spectacular night, the memory of which is still with me. I was mesmerised by the music, particularly the crystal bowls. So much so that I later sought out the composer, Lucio Ivaldi, who kindly agreed to a virtual chat about himself, his work, and his involvement with the Foahs.

The visit to Atlanta in 2012 came at an important moment for The Birth of Color.  Honora had already created the story several years before; David Brendan Hopes had almost finished the lyrics. But the work had stopped for various reasons. The Foahs convinced Ivaldi to get involved and compose the music. He did.  And a month later, he had it done. ‘It was a magnificent moment for me, one of the best in my life’, he told me.

Ivaldi and the Foahs go back a long way; he and Dahlan are cousins. He spoke fondly of memories going back as far 1976 when he visited the USA from Italy with his mother and brother, and indeed of the many times Dahlan and his family visited to Italy. They’ve collaborated on many musical projects, including the 2010 production of Creativity in Captivity, which premiered in Atlanta, GA. It featured original works composed in concentration camps during the Holocaust. But a complete opera in a month? That takes productivity to a new height. I asked Ivaldi how it came to be.

First of all came the complete story – I spent hours and hours with Honora in order to be able to enter the field and the scope of the piece. Then I started working with the mathematics, a lot of mathematics, on various harmonic and melodic possibilities with the Crystal Bowls [that the Foahs had in their home]. At that moment the idea was born . . . to use those crystal bowls  […] and to base the construction of every color’s musical identity on a musical interval – the distance between one note and another. For example, red became a perfect fifth, vermilion a sixth, yellow a third, turquoise a perfect fourth, blue an augmented fourth, and violet a seventh.

Every interval has its own frequency, and the distribution of the Gaussian Curve resembled the theories of Goethe.  That is to say, the distribution has the most intense colors in the center and the more rarefied at the outskirts.

I then created algorithms to create the melodies, the rhythms and the harmonies.  At that point I reverted to the text and to the beautiful phonetics of the English language.  Every night, Honora would read the lyrics to me and I absorbed their intrinsic musicality. I worked with the text by creating madrigals, a bit like a Renaissance musician – only that the harmonies and rhythms are much more complex and are based on algorithms that I had created.

And there I was imagining composing as a process akin to messing around with a piano as words popped into your head. I kept coming back to the bowls though. If ever music touched the soul of my being, it was that night and those bowls.

We needed an ambient sound which could engulf the audience and which would create for our public an experience of sonorous immersion which would be unforgettable.

They’d thought originally of using an electronic base with cello and percussion, but in the spring of 2012, when Honora was visiting Rome, inspiration hit them both at the same time. And in that synchronicity something wonderful was born. Bowls are used more for meditation than for music, so there was a steep learning curve involved. How could they be played as musical instruments?

They can be very gentle, but also very violent.  The ear can be quickly saturated by these penetrating sounds.

With the outline firmly in hand and the lyrics ready to be scored, it took Ivaldi another two years to complete the music for Birth of Color. Here I showed my pedantic ignorance in asking: But didn’t you say it took just a month?

Music is art. Ideas are born. They gestate. They morph into other ideas. They need to develop and be perfected. Add to that the litany of details, tweaks, and changes that this evolving experiment brought to bear. It’s one thing to have it all sketched out on paper and another thing entirely to have it at the stage where others can interpret it, play it, sing it.

I’ve met Honora Foah. She’s quite the woman. While many others might falter in the face of the incredulity she faced when trying to explain her concept of the Birth of Color, she powered on. In Ivaldi, she met someone who understood the essence of where she was coming from and more importantly, the direction in which she wanted to go. I asked her what she thought of the process:

The Birth of Color is an experiment in sound that required a lot of research. What Lucio is talking about with the algorithms is really quite something. This story is an embodied rendering of ideas in physics, related to the ancient Vedic Indian idea of the world being made from vibration and then embodying that as it progresses into Goethe’s color theory – which is weird because in physics, that theory is no longer a go – we went with Newton’s optics many moons ago. It turns out however, that Goethe is describing the neurological story of color – that is, how we perceive color – which turns out to be a marriage of darkness and light. So Lucio, God bless him, took all this craziness deeply to heart and mined for an authentic relationship to the science.

Honora’s original idea had been to use notes or keys for the different colors, but what Ivaldi came up with, the idea of intervals, is, she said, far more sophisticated, deeper, and better.

Ivaldi had epiphanies. He experimented. He transcribed the music in a more definitive form and then in December 2013 he met the Cantate Chorus and Maestro Sapszon. By early 2014, only the last movement of The Birth of Color was missing: Dance.  This particular movement had to respond to many aspects of the story. It had to incorporate in itself all the colours, intervals, musical themes already played as well as the personalities of the diverse colors. And, it had to progressively intensify to culminate in an immense explosion (the Big Bang). It was quite the challenge, even for this scholar of ancient music.
I thought of using the form of a passacaglia, a simple repetition of a stubbornly applied harmony. I inserted into the harmonic scheme all twelve semitones, all the chords which echoed the chords of the colors, all the themes already played, all the rhythms . . . in other words . . . it was difficult!  The principle of rhetorical music is, essentially, that of pleonasmo, i.e., repetition progressively growing, accumulating, and breaking out more and more details and variations.

The result was quite spectacular. I sat enthralled during these particular ten minutes as the room in its entirety was drenched in color and images. It was an unforgettable experience.

Ivaldi’s talent was nurtured at home. His parents, classical music enthusiasts with a large record collection, brought him to concerts each week at the Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome.  As a child, he studied piano and at 14, he joined a polyphonic chorus that sang Baroque masterpieces with an orchestra. Each year, for six years, he took part in ten concerts, singing in such note-worthies as Bach’s Mass in B-Minor and The Passion, and Handel’s Messiah, first performed in Dublin back in 1742.

After his studies at the Conservatory and at university, Ivaldi realised that the center of music for him is the technical experience of polyphony, counterpoint, and the harmonic traditions from the Renaissance through the Baroque periods.  His work is inspired by the old traditionals such as Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, and Stravinsky, and contemporaries like  Edgard Varèse (whose piece, Ionisation, apparently made Frank Zappa want to write music), Krzysztof Penderecki (who wrote the soundtrack for the movie The Shining), and Iannis Xenakis (read more of him this excellent guide to the man and his music in The Guardian). And more recently Francesco Penisi, and Luciano Berio, who taught Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead.

Of his time in Budapest, Ivaldi said:

My experiences in Hungary, my encounter with the marvelous chorus in Budapest led by Sapszon, and the methodology of Zoltan Kodaly regarding musical education, all had an important role in the creation of the choral composition The Birth of Color, A Marriage of Darkness and Light.

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to hear his work live, to meet with him in person, and to get just a glimmer of understanding of what goes into such compositions.

Work on the next two operas in the series continues, with a trip to Iceland on the cards in September. mmm… now there’s somewhere I could be tempted to visit.



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