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.



2016 Grateful 12

Serendipity, the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way, is alive and well and a resident feature of my life. I can’t begin to count the number of casual comments that have led to wondrous things, the number of chance encounters that have morphed into lifelong friendships, the number of random acts of kindness that have made my world a better place.

About a year ago, a mate of mine tried, rather unsuccessfully, to explain a project he was working on: a frequency opera called The Birth of Color. I was never the quickest study in the class but I’m quick enough. But try as I might, I couldn’t get a handle on it at all. He suggested I meet the woman behind it, and the man behind that woman. He invited me for coffee and I met Honora and Dahlan Foah.

Over the course of the next twelve months or so, they kept me posted on developments. At varying stages, both did their level best to explain to me what it was all about. And while I was slowly beginning to get my head around it, it still defied belief. I simply couldn’t see it happening. Now, I’m not short of imagination. In fact, I’m prone to flights of fancy. And I can exaggerate with the best of them. But no matter how much detail they gave, I just didn’t get it.

Last Friday night, 8pm, in the Kiscelli Museum in Budapest, I had the privilege (and I don’t use that word lightly) to see the world premier of Honora Foah’s creation. I had no idea what to expect – I’d heard tell of crystal bowls coming in from Austria. Of a 3-meter pool of water. Of a 60-strong chorus. Of narrators. Of swathes of translucent material. Of lights. Of sound. Of all sorts of stuff that go into such productions. But no matter how I figured it, I still couldn’t do the math.

I invited some friends along, friends who have a greater appreciation for music that I could ever pretend to have. But I fessed up that I had no clue what it was about and couldn’t guarantee anything other than it would be an experience.  I’d met Honora Foah. I knew I was safe in saying that it would definitely be an experience.

The Kiscelli Museum dates back to the mid-1700s. The Baroque building was once a Trinitarian Monastery and vestiges of holiness still reside it its walls. Not necessarily a religious holiness but that sanctity that attaches itself to dedication. Back in 1935, then owner, antique dealer Miska Schmidt willed it to the city of Budapest. And today it is a museum. I was there at a ball some years ago and was mesmerized. It hadn’t lost its magic.

When the doors opened, we were each give a single symbolic rose petal and led downstairs into the crypt along a candlelit path offset by myriad frescoes. It was a tad other worldly, the perfect entrée to what would be even more surreal still.

As we sat in a circle, four narrators took their stations around a silver pool in a darkened stone-walled chamber. Dressed completely in black with their hoods drawn, their faces and voices seemed to separate from their bodies and float free. Two spoke in Hungarian, two in English as they told the story of the birth of colour. The uplight from their tablets cast a spectre-like glow that I would only later appreciate. Nothing in this production was a matter of chance. Everything, from the white in the sheets of music to the stone grey of the walls, everything had its role, its purpose, its place.

Initially I tried hard to hear all the words, to understand what was being said. I like words. I like how they can be strung together to fashion new forms. And I can listen. But I stopped trying to follow the story and instead let myself float on the tide of words and phrases that had a music of their own. I heard of secrets whispered between night and morning, of breathing in a perfume of magenta, of dark being wisdom and light being illumination. And I listened on a whole new level. The story wasn’t unfolding in front of me, it was unfolding within me.

©Andrew Daneman

©Andrew Daneman

When the Budapest Cantate Choir filed on stage with the much-lauded Dr Sapszon Ferenc wielding the baton, the silence in the room was deafening. They put music to all we had just heard. At times they weren’t singing words, but sounds. Composer Lucio Ivaldi’s music is exquisite.

Someone started to play the crystal bowls. And you could feel the room pulsating with energy. The swathes of material suspended from the ceiling were for all the world how I could now imagine frequencies to look. The lights, the sounds, the voices, the story – everything married, including darkness and light.

©Andrew Daneman

©Andrew Daneman

The entire performance lasted  just 1 hour and 10 minutes (and I suspect the 10 minutes had to do with the bilingual narration) but in that 70 minutes, time was transcended. When it was over, no one moved. When the choir filed out, no one moved. Even the air was in deep thought.

Gradually, people came to. And reality intruded.

I was interviewed afterwards and ask for a reaction. And I cried. On camera. I have no clue where the emotion came from. It was as if something, deep, deep down in my soul had been awakened and didn’t quite know what to do with itself. A birth, a rebirth. I still don’t know.  Thirty-six hours later, I’ve stopped trying to name it. To classify it. To label it. If I learned anything on Friday night it’s that there is no need to be all-knowing, there is no need to understand everything. Sometimes, we simply need to attune our emotions and remember to feel.

So, serendipity, once again you have my thanks. The wait was worth it.  I am truly grateful to have borne witness to the Birth of Color: The Marriage of Darkness and Light.