The Music

Notes on the music at “Dream State”

Posted by SoundBox

December 13, 2018

DANÍEL BJARNASON: Sleep Variations
SALVATORE SCIARRINO: Vivace and Andante, from Six Caprices for Solo Violin
FAURÉ: La Mort de Mélisande, from Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, Opus 80  
KAGEL: MM 51 for Piano (and Metronome) 
RAVEL: Enchanted Garden, from Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose)




DEBORAH HARRY (ARR. EDWIN OUTWATER): Sound-A-Sleep   1979  | 4 mins
In the 1970s, New York City was home to a potent burgeoning punk and New Wave scene. Early punk-club act Blondie, fronted by icy beauty Deborah Harry (b.1945), subverted the city’s grimy chaos and decay into overtly catchy, sap-shattering tunes that enraptured the world. 1979’s Eat to the Beat, Blondie’s fourth studio album, saw the band continuing their musical interrogation of dreams and distance—but this time, they dissected the gap between dreamed desire and fulfillment and through the lens of personal success.  

In 1983, Rolling Stones magazine laid out this album review: Eat to the Beat is “ambitious in its range of styles, but also unexpectedly and vibrantly compelling without sacrificing any of the group’s urbane, modish humor. As if to distinguish Blondie from the pop revival they helped catalyze, Eat to the Beat subjugates melody to momentum.” It goes on to say that “the record’s only dud is Sound-A-Sleep, an insomniac’s lullaby with artificial crooning à la Doris Day.” Personally, this insomniac finds Doris Day very  s o  o   t   h    i     n      g      .     .        . 

DID YOU KNOW?  Blondie’s first video album was produced in conjunction with this record, which featured a music video for each of the album’s twelve songs—the first such project in rock music.  

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DANÍEL BJARNASON: Sleep Variations  2005  |  16 mins
Daníel Bjarnason (b.1979), Co-Founder and Chief Conductor of the Isafold Chamber Orchestra, and 2012 Composer of the Year recipient at the Iceland Music Awards, writes music that has been described as “the sound of fire and instinct, the musical equivalent of a controlled burn.” Sleep Variations was inspired by Margaret Atwood’s poem Variation on the Word Sleep. Bjarnason created his stirring viola concerto16 spectacular minutes of sonic tossing and turning—expressly for violist Nadia Sirota, who tosses and turns for us at these performances. 

Variation on the Word Sleep

I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head
and walk with you through that lucent
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
with its watery sun & three moons
towards the cave where you must descend,
towards your worst fear
I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center. I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside me, and you enter
it as easily as breathing in
I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.—Margaret Atwood


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SALVATORE SCIARRINO: Vivace and Andante, from Six Caprices for Solo Violin  1976  |  5 mins
In 1976, Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino (b.1947) wrote his extraordinary 6 Capricci. One of the most celebrated contemporary works for solo violin, it requires extreme virtuosity a la the music of fellow Italian hotshot Niccolò Paganini (1742-1840). The set’s Vivace and Andante caprices are particularly noted for the ambitious technical demands on the performer—a challenge easily met by SFS Associate Principal Second Violin Helen Kim. Each caprice is a living, breathing musical paradox, two in-your-face bravura showpieces that are built of diaphanous, whispered sounds. Enjoy your dreamy descent into Sciarrino’s delicate yet potent sound world of shadows and specters.  

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FAURÉ: La Mort de Mélisande, from Pelléas et Mélisande Suite, Opus 80  1898  |  5 mins
The story of Pelléas et Mélisande is about a grownup living in a world otherwise inhabited by the senile and the infantile—and being driven mad by them. Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) wrote incidental music to this nightmarish story, and then a Pelléas et Mélisande suite. Tonight we hear La Mort de Mélisandethe softly pensive fourth of four numbers that make up Fauré’s suite. LISTEN FOR: Fauré’s scores for a rather imaginative use of the flute’s ghostly low register, and the harmonies throughout have a touchingly “removed” air to them. Perhaps it is not a surprise, then, that at the composer’s funeral, when his coffin was carried through the church to the street before its transport to the cemetery, it was to the tender sounds of La Mort de Mélisande. Enjoy the music that ushered one of the world’s foremost composers to his final sleep.

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KAGEL: MM 51 for Piano (and Metronome)  1976  |  9 mins
German-Argentine Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008) was one of the great post-World War II avant-garde composers/conceptual artists; his originality reflects his status as an outsider. He was arguably the most under-exposed of his generation’s composerly avant-gardists, a formidable group that included Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, György Ligeti, and Iannis Xenakis. MM51 examines the relationship between piano, vocalizing pianist, and metronome from the perspective of Expressionist film.

In 1982, the composer offered this comment on MM 51: “Rather as in Schönberg’s Accompaniment to a cinematographic scene, the theme of this piano piece is the threat of unspoken fears and dangers. But in contrast to Schönberg's orchestral composition, which is written in the autonomous musical language of expressionism, the present piece uses only stereotyped formulae, drawn from the kind of commercial music familiar to every viewer. By deliberately rejecting a current “contemporary” style, I tried a different starting point for a problem that allows for contrasting solutions and realizations. 

Already with the first chords of the piece, the listener may recognize that repertoire of acoustic anecdotes which is readily dissociable from the illustration of moving pictures. But the relationship of this music with the representation of disturbing situations— which are only vaguely, rather than precisely, etched in the listener’s memory—permits a collage-like treatment of various film scenes. And thus, from dramatic situations of disparate origin, a particular, renovated mental image can be created.” 

DID YOU KNOW?   Kagel later makes this piece’s Expressionist link explicit in his 1983 short film work, MM 51 Nosferatu, where he staged a bizarre piano dialogue with F.W. Murnau’s silent horror film Nosferatu. 

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LAURIE ANDERSON (ARR. EDWIN OUTWATER): Hothead (Langue d’Amour)  1984  |  6 mins
American avant-garde visual artist, composer, poet, photographer, filmmaker, electronics whiz, vocalist, and instrumentalist Laurie Anderson (b.1947) is one of the most daring creative pioneers of our time. Her experiential sonic-linguistic Hothead (Langue d’Amour) reframes and reimagines the Adam and Eve story from an ethnographical perspective. Parts of the spoken text are delivered in French—a language that Anderson does not actually know—which for some, transforms a heady experience into one of solely sonic wonder.  

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OWEN PALLETT (TEXT: FAN WU): Unearth   2013  |  10 mins
Canadian composer, violinist, keyboardist, and vocalist Owen Pallett (b.1979) was commissioned by the National Ballet of Canada to score a ballet titled Unearth by choreographer Robert Binet. This SoundBox event marks the US Premiere performances. Binet offers this insight into their collaboration and the piece: “When we began our collaboration, composer Owen Pallett and I explored the idea that when a civilization reaches a certain level of advancement, it can lose its curiosity and become inert. Unearth looks at how this inertia is created and maintained and, more importantly, how we can push past it. Inertia is not stillness; it takes as much or more energy to keep things the way they are than to allow something new to be created. To move past it we need to find ways to listen to one another, to trust, to question, to push, to support, to exchange . . . .” 

Long shot, exterior. //// A blueglass condo building // burning in green flame. 
The condo is a monolith. // The windows appear to you as // a pattern of dots, a double helix // of pane and balcony. 
This feeling overtakes you: //// you left your beloved behind // because you cowered at their totality. 
You move closer, in a sweeping zoom // to the base of the building. 
A woman squeezes dumpling tops // together as her family sits // at the dining table. // Flames lick eyes. 
A man watches a barn // take to blaze on the television. // Flames singe flesh. 
This feeling overtakes you: //// Your mother walks across the kitchen // with a gait such that all discern // her need for sympathy. 
Someone wading through their hurt // cuddles their dolphin plushie. // Flames sprout flames. 
The condo doors open for you, // for you are naked as a first word, // choked upon. 
This feeling overtakes you: //// Your brother is thinning his eyebrows // with tweezers, you're twelve. 
Frantic, you press the elevator button, // its texture of congealed ropes. 
Elevator doors not metal // but the breathing interweaving // of branch and root. 
Elevator obeys not the laws of the shaft // but the laws of the vine. 
This feeling overtakes you: //// Confidence nested in your gut // just shy of banishing your fear of dying. 
Vertical motion comes with a swung bow, // that back and forth of fun rides // and your father swaddling you // before he feared. 
The doors open as a parting jungle floor, // shedding flower and carapace. 
Your grandmother stands at the door, // no skin nor jaw, // just an upright sentinel of flesh. 
A lone rodent, // with snakes' tongues for whiskers, // runs down her body. 
This feeling overtakes you: //// you not understanding that the terms of love // may overwrite the terms of amity. 
The woman dissolves // into a puddle of muscle // as though the rat unzips her. 
A thunder line // runs whorls down // your softer spine. 
This feeling, finally: //// Of being engulfed. 
This being engulfed, // your final feeling.Fan Wu 


DID YOU KNOW? Pallet has written orchestral parts for bands including Arcade Fire and Mountain Goats, and remixed Grizzly Bear. His score for Spike Jonze’s film Her, written with Arcade Fire’s Will Butler, was nominated for a 2014 Oscar for Best Original Score. 

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RAVEL: Enchanted Garden, from Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose)  1908/1911  |  4 mins
Ravel’s music is often described as exquisite, and the orchestral version of Mother Goose is certainly that. There is not a page that fails to yield some arcane but effective detail of orchestration, and many fleeting combinations of sounds feel unique to this piece. A critic once described it: “. . . the Ravel of Mother Goose reveals to us the secret of his profound nature, and shows us the soul of a child who has never left the kingdom of Fairyland, who makes no distinction between nature and artifice, and who seems to believe that everything can be imagined and carried out on the material plane provided everything is strictly controlled and regulated on the mental or spiritual plane.”  

PICTURE THIS: You are in an Enchanted Garden. It’s dawn. Birds are singing. Prince Charming enters, led by a cupid. He notices the sleeping Princess. She awakens at the same time that day is breaking. . .


JEANETTE YU is Editorial Director at the San Francisco Symphony. 

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