Inspired by activists like Warren Senders, Andrée Zalesk, and Kannan, I’ve wanted to create some music about a shared concern: climate change. So, I was happy to come across Emily Dickinson’s poem “Who robbed the woods?” The poem admits multiple interpretations, but I take it as being about the rape of our natural environment. Emily would not likely have had “climate change” on her mind but surely she could have been familiar with people and organizations who do not treat our shared home with respect. I’ve been working all month to set the text to music (for baritone and piano) and have just finished a draft of the composition. I have put together a rough demo recording where I am singing against a software-generated piano track; while my vocal delivery here has not benefited from much preparation I think the clip does convey what the composition is about; I wanted to share the rough version “early” and invite your reactions to the poem itself and to the way I’ve tried to interpret it musically. Thanks for listening. Please follow along with the text:

Who robbed the woods,
The trusting woods?
The unsuspecting trees
Brought out their burrs and mosses
His fantasy to please.
He scanned their trinkets, curious,
He grasped, he bore away.
What will the solemn hemlock,
What will the fir-tree say?

Here is an alap in Rag Purvi.  I’m particularly fascinated by this rag, and the clip here happens to be one of my favorite alaps that I’ve managed to record so far.

Rag Purvi makes for a very interesting comparison with Rag Bhairav which I explored in my last post.  It would seem that the two rags have nearly the same pitch material.  Bhairav has komal re and komal dha while the other swaras are shuddha; Purvi has those same swaras with the addition of tivra ma.  In Western terms, Bhairav has a flat second, natural third, natural fourth, natural fifth, flat sixth, and natural seventh; Purvi has those same pitches with the addition of the sharp fourth that prevails over the natural fourth.

They have similar scales and yet Bhairav is a morning rag while Purvi is a dusk rag.  As a student of dhrupad I’ve tried to grasp what it really means for a raga to be associated with a specific time of day.  How does being a morning versus a dusk rag impact the way the rag is actually performed?  One very concrete impact is on the way the pitches are intoned.  Reams of material have been written on intonation in Indian Classical Music and by even mentioning the topic I know I’m treading into an area of much heated discussion and debate.  However, to summarize what I’ve learned from my teacher, the pitches that admit flexible intonation like komal re and komal dha should be performed higher in the morning and lower at dusk (though one can find commentators who suggest the exact opposite).  The higher intonation creates an active, rising quality in the note that evokes the energy and brightness of morning, while the lower intonation creates a falling quality that represents the setting sun.  A good performer does not push the pitch up or down arbitrarily, but rather achieves a higher or lower intonation by changing the reference point that is kept in mind while singing.  In Purvi as I learned it from my teacher, the very low intonations of komal re and komal dha arise by keeping shuddha ga, which is very strong in this rag, always in mind as one sings — searching for the re and dha that seem most aligned with the ga.  In Bhairav, although there may be a temptation to emphasize ga because it sounds pretty, that swara should not be given too much emphasis and in fact it can be intoned slightly high to give it a less stable quality; in Bhairav, the intonation of dha comes from taking sa as the reference point, and in turn the re emerges from dha.

The clip of Purvi that I’m posting here is the first time I’ve been able to hit the dusk srutis consistently in this rag, though I had worked on the same challenge in my earlier take on Rag Marwa.  It is difficult to do.  Because the dusk srutis are so low, there is a temptation to make them as low as possible, but that results in their being simply too low; there’s a contrasting temptation to make them too high, since the brighter, morning srutis are perhaps more standard and familiar, and are easier to “find” because sa is an easier reference to work with.  However, when the shuddha ga is kept firmly in mind, the intonation of dha and re can settle around it in a way that really does unlock the special mood of a transitional time of day.

Here are demos of my first two songs for baritone voice and piano, on contrasting poems by Emily Dickinson.  It’s taken the past two months to write these — the compositions are complete, I think!  The audio isn’t final though: I’m still working on vocal delivery and am hoping to record these again with a real accompanist (in these clips, the piano part is played by rather unforgiving software).  Feedback on the compositions is welcome.

I many times thought Peace had come
When Peace was far away—
As Wrecked Men—deem they sight the Land—
At Centre of the Sea—

And struggle slacker—but to prove
As hopelessly as I—
How many the fictitious Shores—
Before the Harbor lie—

Perhaps you’d like to buy a flower,
But I could never sell—
If you would like to borrow,
Until the Daffodil

Unties her yellow Bonnet
Beneath the village door,
Until the Bees, from Clover rows
Their Hock, and Sherry, draw,

Why, I will lend until just then,
But not an hour more!

Here’s a short piece I’ve just finished writing for guitar; maybe it will become part of a series.  The style here is romantic and the texture is more homophonic than contrapuntal, a departure from the keyboard-oriented canons I’ve been working on recently.  It feels good to now be writing for the instrument I actually play.  This is in fact my first “composed” piece for guitar — my past guitar work has been improvisational and it’s taken me some time to move from a spontaneous to a planned approach to working with the instrument.   One thing I’ve learned is that writing for guitar involves a constant interplay between abstract musical thinking and a nut-and-bolts examination of the instrument’s possibilities and tendencies.  I suppose that’s true for any instrument, but it’s especially so for the guitar because the guitar is polyphonic, but not in the rational, orderly way the keyboard is polyphonic; instead, in a quirky, limited way, where the fingers of the left hand can quickly become immersed in a nightmarish game of Twister if the composer isn’t careful.  But one nice thing about being the author of the piece you’re playing is that if a certain note gives you trouble you have the authority to change it, and I did that several times in the course of practicing this!  In the clip, you’ll hear me playing my 2009 Connor guitar.  Feedback is welcome.

The 33rd piece in my canon album is an invertible crab canon.  If we use a sequence of numbers to represent the progression of a musical phrase, one line in the canon would be of a form like this:

1 2 3 4 5 5 4 3 2 1

Having reached its midpoint after 1 2 3 4 5, the line reverses and plays its own first half backwards, 5 4 3 2 1.  At the same time, the accompanying line plays the backwards or retrograde version followed by the forward version:

5 4 3 2 1 1 2 3 4 5.

So at any given time, you’ll be hearing 1 2 3 4 5 played alongside 5 4 3 2 1, with those fragments exchanging position — moving between the top and bottom lines — midway through the piece. (There’s no significance in the way this example goes to 5 and back; any number could have been used to make the point.)

The structure could be visualized like this:


I first learned about crab canons as a teenager reading Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. As much as I loved Hofstadter’s treatment of this and so many other subjects, I maintained a sense that crab canons are rather artificial as musical structures. I’m interested in writing canons because I enjoy listening to them, and part of that enjoyment depends on an ability to follow a canon’s structure as it is heard. But crab canons have always seemed to me a bit beyond the capacity of a mortal ear to follow. The idea of playing a musical line in reverse is simple to describe, but not a very natural thing to do. It can be hard for the ear to discern the relationship between a line and its retrograde, and if the relationship isn’t apparent to the ear, what’s the point of basing a piece on it? Now having worked on some crab canons of my own I can respond to that question by saying, first, that the relationship may not be blatant but it may still enter into perception in subtle ways, and second that it does become more apparent when you listen to a crab canon many times and begin to memorize the lines. The highly restrictive nature of crab canons is also valuable in that it demands, and hence inspires, creativity.

Canon 33 is the second crab canon I’ve written.  The first one, Canon 31, is a non-strict kind of crab canon where the durations of some notes are allowed to vary between the forwards and backwards versions of the theme.  In contrast, Canon 33, is strict crab canon where the note durations are identical in both directions.  Another difference between Canon 31 and Canon 33 is that the first is based on the whole-tone scale and has somewhat unconventional harmonic design, while Canon 33 sticks to fairly straightforward tonality. There’s one structural liberty taken in Canon 33: there’s a certain note instance that’s played sharp when the line is moving in one direction but natural when the line is moving in the other direction.  Here’s a visualization of the entire Canon 33 in piano roll notation:


In the clip below, you can hear each line of the canon played separately.  First you’ll hear the bottom line; then, after a pause, you’ll hear the top:


Now listen to both lines played together in the official track on Bandcamp:


And here’s a video of it:


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