For Dr. B.

Easter Sunday, 2017

Yesterday, a handful of children turned up at church to get in the Easter spirit a day early. As they painted hard boiled eggs and drew bunnies with crayons, the parish undercroft became a sea of pinks and light greens, spattered with yellows and the occasional blue. It’s always fun to see how children go to town with color, showing off their mastery of abstract expression, as the light flexible wax of crayons were blended: green hitting red to create an ugly brown for the Easter bunny’s tail, yellow and blue for turquoise eyes, red and white for his nose. While I was practicing upstairs in the church, colors were also changing. Good Friday’s shades of purple and black were retired for the festal Easter white, with hints of cream and light emerald in the bunches of lilies spread around the sanctuary (probably the largest number of lilies I’ve ever seen without the accompanying presence of a corpse and casket).

Having gotten through the weekend, there are other signs as well that Holy Week has ended.

(1) I’m exhausted.
(2) JOE Coffee is selling chocolate donuts with Peeps on top. (I had two.)
(3) Leftover Matzah is on offer at Fairway. So are Reese’s peanut butter Easter eggs.
(4) I started drinking lunch at 2pm.
(5) It’s now 5pm. I’m still lunching.
(6) Thus prompting me to blog.

For an organist, getting through Holy Week liturgies themselves isn’t really the hard part. It’s more the steps one goes through ahead of time that add up: picking hymns the congregation knows, distributing choir music, arranging for the musicians to show up at the right time in the right place, checking batteries in book-lights for services where overhead lights will not be available, checking the staging for the services, picking choir music that will not interfere with the requirements that the choir process around the church four times… oh yeah, and practicing. I’ve got to say, that it’s been relatively smooth sailing the last few weeks, and there have been points of fun with my boss as the topic of whether the choir music for Holy Week might be a tad NSFW has come up on several occasions.

On Good Friday, an eyebrow was raised when I instructed old my choir in a loud voice to begin from the verse starting “Fac me” in Palestrina’s Stabat Mater, by borderline yelling the word “Fac.” Twice. (Oops.)

On Monday, my boss overheard me asking one of my choir members if they had gotten the blow for Friday, to which he responded, “yes, and it’s FANTASTIC.” Luckily, it didn’t take long to explain that that we were talking about John Blow’s Salvator Mundi, and that I was not in fact using church resources to procure a Paschal eight ball.

That said, she was perhaps a little less convinced when the life and… well, proclivities of one composer came up this week. In a meeting a few days before Palm Sunday, I mentioned in passing that I thought the congregation would enjoy one particular piece set for Sunday’s service.

Boss: Oh great! I don’t think I know Gesualdo.

Me: Oh he was an Italian nobleman who was known for writing some pretty whacky music. He was a little crazypants.

Boss: (Laughter) Crazy? How?

Me: Oh well he killed his first wife.  

Boss: He murdered his wife?!? 

Me: And it’s rumored he killed his son too. One story goes that he had his son murdered in the court and had his own music played as he watched him die. 

Boss: (silence) 

Me: I mean it’s not totally verifiable. I mean he didn’t murder his second wife. But we do know was into some BDSM kink. Another rumor is that he died as a result of being whipped to death by his servants in a bondage set up.

Boss: (silence) 

Me: It’s really great! There’s even a Werner Herzog documentary on it and everything, including how his castle is still haunted and how the local townsfolk thought he was a cannibal. 

Boss: And you mean to tell me that the choir will be singing this man’s music on Palm Sunday… for holy worship.  

Me: Oh totally! Don’t worry, it’s a sacred work, all about the sex and violence thatone gets in the Passion story, you know with all the stuff about obedience and pain and whatnot.

Boss: (silence, justified bewilderment) 

Me: I mean, it’s great for Sunday in a way. Like a late-Sunday-night-in-Chelsea-dungeon kind of Sunday way, if you get my drift.  

Boss: Uh huh. Well the church bulletins have already been printed, I guess I’ll keep an open mind.  

As kooky as the Gesualdo legends are, there’s a reason his music stands out and is appropriate for Holy Week. Indeed, choirs across the globe will be performing his O vos omnes, a setting of text taken from the Lamentations of Jeremiah: “All ye that pass by, look and see: is there any sorrow like unto my sorrow?” Anyone who listens to is immediately struck that the music doesn’t sound as if it was written in the 17th century at all; it sounds as if it was written in the 20th, likened more to the music of Igor Stravinsky than any composer of the 17th century.  It’s not wholly unsurprising. The piece jumps around from key to key, playing with seemingly random and unrelated chords like a young piano student looking for the right notes to play. But what if I told you that we’ve been listening to this music the wrong way around? That Gesualdo doesn’t sound like Stravinsky, but that Stravinsky sounds like Gesualdo? That Gesualdo’s music doesn’t jump from key to key, and neither does some of Stravinsky’s? What if keys don’t have anything to do with it, because there are no keys?

Once again, I’m going to talk about one of my favorite professors at the Juilliard School, Dr. Kendall Briggs. In his class on the Baroque Concerto last Wednesday, he presented his students with Stravinsky’s Concerto in D. That’s right. This piece was not written in the Baroque era. It doesn’t sound Baroque (or so we think). It’s written for modern instruments. What the hell does it have to do with anything? Well, in taking the piece apart we learned Stravinsky organized the piece on Baroque tonal concepts whereby the “key” of D isn’t really a major or minor key of any kind, but is a sonic space which contains all the black notes you see on the keyboard but with a twist. In this scheme, black notes aren’t really “notes” but colorations or shadings on the white notes of the keyboard. F and F-sharp are really the same note, but shaded differently, just as pink and red are simply darker and lighter contrasts of the same pigmentation. BUT, what aren’t the same notes, are G-flat and F-Sharp – after all G is G and F is F, and one can’t simply make one the other.

Don’t believe me? Why do you think Isaac Newton came up with a scheme of seven colors for the refraction of light in the rainbow? Has anyone looked up after a rainstorm actually “seen” that mysterious indigo that supposedly lies somewhere between blue and violet? Don’t worry. Newton didn’t see that color either. He wanted to have seven colors to match the seven white notes on a keyboard, as he thought what a lot of people thought back then: that notes were colors for the ears.

That said, Gesualdo was known for throwing a bit more color on the canvas than others. I mean, one doesn’t hearken back to the music of his time and immediately think of harmonic iconoclasm or Messiaen-like synesthetic schemes. In the first three bars of his O vos omnes, he moves from C major to A major to F major chords in succession. They each have common tones, in the sense that C and A majors share both C (one sharp, on natural) and E, and F major and A are connected by A and C (one sharp, and one natural). The next cadence falls on a D major chord, connected to F major by sharing an A and an F (one natural and one sharp).

If we follow Newton’s color disc, we can see how Gesualdo’s colors start to blend naturally into one another, though they seem jarring at first hearing.

C major – C (Violet), E (Orange), G (Green)

A Major – A (Blue) C# (Magenta), E (Orange)

F Major – F (Yellow), A (Blue), C (Violet)

Content warning: nerd material ahead. 

I’m nerding out I know, but look at how C Major and A major are related. It’s not just that orange stays in place. It’s as if the red from the violet is extracted, and handed over to create the magenta, and that straight blue is left over. All the while, the red remains constant in the orange. But from A major to F major, the red is continually extracted, sucking it out of the orange to leave a simple yellow behind, while turning the magenta back into violet.

But there’s more to it even than that. There are always issues of tuning. What we think of as “in-tune” from a choir or a string quartet doesn’t always line up with the notes as their tuned on the piano. Often what we think is in tune actually adjusts the top two notes of a chord down. One can think of it like a bit like reclining in your chair at Passover, where the slight slump is comfortable, although it doesn’t make your spine look like the chart at your chiropractor’s office. What ends up happening is that the notes themselves become more flexible or more varied, though operating in the same color space allotted on the wheel. If we move E and G down in C, and C# and E down in A, the shades change, and the jarring harmonies we heard before are really just a palette of crayons exchanging reds, yellows and blues to create a little kaleidoscope.

Without a doubt, my colleagues who are well-versed in either art history and historical musicology are cringing at my gross oversimplification of the Gesualdo’s use of modal theory. But I suppose what I’m getting at is that getting lost in Gesualdo isn’t really about listening to it from start to finish in a “linear” or “horizontal” way, but in a more circular fashion – that is, incorporating the vertical and horizontal flexibly and simultaneously.

In his later life, Stravinsky set out on a quest to find a way to write chromatically without using new mathematical methods, such as those devised by Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. In doing so, he acquainted himself with the work of Gesualdo, Heinrich Isaac and others to find out how it was that works from hundreds of year before could be so saturated with the crunchy harmonies and dissonances we associated with the early 20th century. In a 1952 interview with the New York Herald Tribune he posited that “After all, it is not easy to write tonal music. But I have found marvelous things long before the Baroque. Why is it do you suppose that we deny everything upon which the past upon which the present is built? This is what is wrong with most twelve-tone composers. They are indifferent to the vertical aspects of music. They are terribly deaf to the logic of vertical combination.” Stravinsky’s adoption of modal theory (made color theory by Newton), was the key to his assertion that harmony doesn’t simply function in straight lines, but is made up of the way notes relate to each other, rotate around a circle, create intervals. For him, there was no need for grids or matrices to find the natural manifestations of the harmony – it had already been figured out hundreds of years ago.

As abstract as a concept of “circular” music can appear, neither Gesualdo, Stravinsky nor Newton were alone in devising rotational schemes for the navigation of harmony. When asked what the essence of music was, Bach stated that “fa mi et mi fa est tota musica” (fa mi and mi fa are all of music).

My professor at Juilliard likes to draw rows of hexachords and show how the intersection of intervals line up across the ancient church modes, but Bach’s own name held a key to his understanding of harmony. Depending on how you spin the circle, one has the relationships of all semitones and rotational devices in a single tool, using the German note names B (B-flat) A, C and H (B-natural).

But even better is John Coltrane, and his conscious linking of music to Islamic concepts of the Divine ratios and even Einstein’s theory of relativity. Known for insane levels of virtuosity and spontaneity in his improvisations, Coltrane actually had a pretty tight organization scheme for all of his works, built around what has become known as the “Coltrane Circle.” Any musician will recognize the manner in which the circle of fifths are represented, but the incorporation of the Newtonian Circle at the same time offered a visually perfect representation of what he saw as a certain divinity in chromatic saturation. Whether you think it’s overrated or not, when Love Supreme was released in 1965, the world hadn’t really heard anything like it, being heralded as unparalleled in its abstraction and dissonance. But in transcribing the work and comparing it to Coltrane’s notes, the work is incredibly tightly organized around the a strict set of mathematical relationships, not unlike Gesualdo or Stravinsky.

At the end of the day, whether it’s Stravinsky, Gesualdo, Bach or Coltrane, the idea of the visuality of music, prompting you to look around, is central to any piece of music regardless of its funkiness or initial absurdity. Just as we can see colors around us and interpret how they relate to each other, we can listen to music in stereo, seeing how composers aren’t really using notes – they’re really just using a box of crayons.

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