The Music

Notes on Music at “Curiosities”

Posted by SoundBox

January 9, 2015

JOHN ADAMS:  Selections from Shaker Loops

Shaker Loops (1978) is one of John Adams’s most frequently played works. Adams explains: “The ‘loops’ idea was a technique from the era of tape music where small lengths of prerecorded tape attached end to end could repeat melodic or rhythmic figures ad infinitum. The Shakers got into the act partly as a pun on the musical term ‘to shake,’ meaning either to make a tremolo with the bow across the string or else to trill rapidly from one note to another.” But it was also a nod to “my own childhood memories of growing up not far from a defunct Shaker colony near Canterbury, New Hampshire. . . . The term ‘Shaker’ … summons up the vision of these otherwise pious and industrious souls caught up in the ecstatic frenzy of a dance that culminated in an epiphany of physical and spiritual transcendence. This dynamic, almost electrically charged element, so out of place in the orderly mechanistic universe of Minimalism, gave the music its raison d’être.”


MARK VOLKERT: Selections from Serenade

Mark Volkert has been a violinist in the San Francisco Symphony since 1972 and the Orchestra’s Assistant Concertmaster since 1980. Many of Volkert’s compositions have been performed by the SF Symphony. These are the first performances of his striking Serenade. These SoundBox performances introduce the work slightly out of order, at the composer’s suggestion: We hear the second movement first, followed by the opening movement.


BIBER: Battalia

Biber’s Battalia (1673) is thought to have been composed for a carnival pantomime. Dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine, it combines elements of fantasy and entertainment. Much of Biber’s fantasy is woven into the music itself. He calls for a number of unusual instrumental techniques, such as the players beating the strings of their instruments with the wood of their bows; a percussive pizzicato to imitate cannon shots; dueling bass players; and even making the bass player use a piece of paper to buzz on the strings in Der Mars (to Mars, the god of war) to imitate a snare drum, while the solo violin imitates a military fife.

In the second movement, translated to “The dissolute company of all types of humor,” Biber mixes different German, Slovak, and Czech folk songs. He notes that there is dissonance all around—“for thus are the drunks accustomed to bellow with different songs.”

The final movement, titled "The Lament of the Wounded," is the cry of wounded soldiers on the battlefield—which seems a realistic response!


J.S. BACH: Selections from Cello Suite No. 1 in G major for Unaccompanied Cello

Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello (circa 1720) occupy the  highest summit of all the music ever written for cello. Although the cello is mainly  a “melody instrument” in the Suites, the music is full of polyphonic writing. The first suite, which is excerpted at this show, opens with a spacious Prelude that has curiously been showing up in TV commercials lately. The movement unfolds out of widely scaled chords, and continues through a solid Allemande, sprightly Courante, and pensive Sarabande. In this suite there are added dances—a pair of Minuets—and it ends with a good-humored Gigue or jig.



Mark Summer is the cellist for the Bay Area-based Turtle Island Quartet. He is a founding member and has performed with Turtle Island  since its founding in 1985. Julie-O, a groundbreaking solo piece, written for Turtle Island Quartet’s second recording, Metropolis, contains a number of non-traditional cello techniques adapted from the guitar and drums. It has become very popular among musicians and audiences alike since its release in 1989.


BENJAMIN BRITTEN: Selections from Les Illuminations

Les Illuminations is sometimes like fireworks going off, and sometimes like light almost too soft to read by playing across some shadowed object. You are always left with some lively, arresting image, and Britten’s music, deeply in tune with French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s fanciful text, passes on those images in an incredibly vivid, unforgettable form. “These songs,” Britten insisted, “ain’t written for long-haired high-brows!”

Britten wrote that “the word ‘Illuminations’ suggests both the vision of a mystic and brightly coloured picture…. Rimbaud did in some way identify himself with God, and imagined these poems to be directly inspired. Intensely original and in many places obscure, they are in fact visions of the world he lived in, violent and sordid, which was for Rimbaud at the same time so horrifying and so fascinating.”

A few further comments on the selections heard at this show:

The opening Fanfare introduces the work’s motto—“J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” (“I alone hold the key to this savage parade”).

Villes is a brilliant vision of the swirl of modern cities.

Phrase, with its distant bell-like strings, is a brief and magic moment, especially in its closing phrase, “et je danse” ("and I dance"), with its instrumental ascent in the softest of soft dynamics, pianississimo, followed by a seductive, sweet slide down through an octave.

Antique is a super-charged erotic song with deliciously naïve tonal lines. At the end, the orchestra is almost silenced by the image of the young man moving his thigh, then the second thigh, and the left leg…

Parade is the most complex song in Les Illuminations, like a strange march. The song discharges into the final statement of “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage…

P.S. Britten’s Les Illuminations score is dated “Amityville, N.Y.—Oct 25th 1939.” Thirty-five years later, Peter Benchley set his novel Jaws in Amityville, on Long Island.


MILHAUD: Le Boeuf sur le Toit

The title of this 1919 work, literally “The Cow on the Roof,” comes from the name of an imaginary bar: a rowdy watering-hole turned dance-hall. The composer wrote, “haunted by my memories of Brazil, I assembled some popular melodies—tangos, maxixes, sambas, and even a Portuguese fado—and transcribed them with a rondo-like section recurring between each successive pair… suitable music for a Charlie Chaplin film.” His friend, French writer/designer/artist/filmmaker/awesomely creative person Jean Cocteau “created a pantomime scenario for my music, set in an American bar during Prohibition, which had recently been instituted... The characters were a Boxer, a Dwarf, a Lady of Fashion, a Red-headed Woman Dressed as a Man, a Bookmaker, A Gentleman in Evening Clothes, a Barman who serves drinks to everyone present.”

After some brawls, much laughing and tipsy dancing, a Policeman enters and—magically!—Le boeuf sur le toit is transformed into a milk-bar, the clients acting out a rustic scene and dancing a pastorale as the clients sip their milk drinks. The Barman switches on a huge fan, which decapitates a Policeman. The Red-headed Woman dances, standing on her hands, with the Policeman's head. The customers slowly depart, swaying in all directions, and the proceedings end with the Barman presenting a huge bill to the now-reconstituted Policeman.

It's worth noting that the characters were originally played by clown-acrobats from circus troupes.