The following notes accompany the August 3, 2018 Aural History concert program
Folk songs reflect the life, culture, and soul of a civilization.
I grew up in China and have always had a fondness for Chinese folk songs. China has more than fifty ethnic groups, each with its own culture, traditions, and folk songs. Folk Songs for Orchestra is an ongoing project, starting with this commission from the San Francisco Symphony, in which I plan over the years to compile and set folk tunes from various parts of China into Western orchestral form. The goal is not only to preserve and renew the original folk songs, but also to transform them into new pieces of art that also contain organic originality. I have chosen four of the most well known Chinese folk songs.
The first one is the “Flower Drum Song from Feng Yang” (鳳陽花鼓). Almost one hundred different songs are performed in “Fengyang Flower Drum,” which boasts a long history. Known for its flower-drum performances, Fengyang is the birthplace of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. At performances that include singing and dancing in Fengyang County of Anhui Province, “Fengyang Flower Drum” has been passed down over the centuries. In terms of its forms, “Fengyang Flower Drum” can be divided into three parts, Flower Drum Lantern, Flower Drum Play, and Flower Drum Gong. Together, these are entitled “Fengyang Flower Drum,” or “Three Flowers of Fengyang.”
The second piece is called “Love Song from Kang Ding” (康定情歌). This tune is one of the most popular Chinese folk songs. Its simple melody and vivid rhythm are easy to remember and sing, and its lyrics tell of a timeless theme—love. This song’s origin is from the Sichuan province.
The third piece is called “The Girl from Daban City” (达坂城的姑娘). It is also known as “Carriage Driver’s Song.” It comes from Xinjiang province and is sung by carriage drivers in Turpan. The lively music shows the enthusiastic and colorful characteristics of Uyghur folk song, reflecting its people’s heartfelt admiration for Xinjiang, the “hometown of songs and dances.”
The fourth piece is called “Boatman Song from the Yellow River” (黃河船工號子). It is from Shanxi province and is sung by boatmen carrying passengers across the mighty Yellow River. The piece is a solemn, dignified, and passionate calling, full of emotions integrating nature and personal expression. It combines various elements and allows them to unfold one by one. At the end of the piece the performers are asked to sing the Chinese words “ni xiao de,” which are the first three words from the original folk song and translate to “do you know?” This ambiguous final question finds its subject in the preceding musical declaration. Sometimes in composing and experiencing music, no definitive final ending exists, and thus a question is its own answer. Everything has an end, and the end is a new beginning.
I received the invitation to write Dear Life just days before giving birth to my first child. Although my better judgment told me that composing an orchestral work of this proportion in the early months of motherhood was total insanity, there was something about the project that lured me in. Perhaps it was the story. Munro’s words struck a chord: a portrait of a mother-daughter relationship over a lifetime, an artist coming into her own, realizing her “Otherness” but also the universality of lived experience. I admired Munro’s flow, her flashes of memories half-recalled, perhaps fictional, perhaps autobiographical–ambiguous and at times startlingly straightforward.
And so, I have attempted to tell the story in my way: through music, sound, and experimentation. Martha Henry’s voice guides us through the adapted text as our trusted narrator. The singer, however, is treated differently. Her material is made of fragmented text and invented sounds, a visceral response bridging the divide between the abstractness of the music and the concreteness of the spoken word. Her presence comes in and out of focus both musically and dramaturgically. At the beginning her voice is fused with the orchestra, but gradually she emerges as a distinct, independent entity.
The orchestra wavers between absolute music (non-representational textures, sometimes static, sometimes spastic), and what I think of as archetypal music–music from our collective unconscious; memory music, rusty warped hymns, the sound of migrating flocks, a melody sung to oneself, the embodiment of nostalgia via the re-orchestrated sound of phonograph static. This is the spectrum from which I work to try to create different musical spaces, from the story within the story (the Netterfield fable), to the doggerel poem sung near the end of the work. Under the pastoral beauty of these reminiscences lurks the thrill of danger, violence, misfortune, and yet forgiveness and acceptance is what we walk away with. There is something so fundamentally human about this story.
Alice Munro once wrote:
“A story is not like a road to follow…it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth […]. And you, the visitor, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time.”
It is in this way, I hope, that listeners will experience my house of sound.
–Zosha Di Castri
Text Adaptation of Alice Munro’s “Dear Life” by Merilyn Simonds
I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me.
That westward road was mine.
When my father and my mother bought this plot of land, their idea was to become prosperous by raising silver foxes, and later on, mink.
He put up the wire walls that would contain their captive lives.
There was quite a lot of killing going on, now that I think of it, but I was used to this and could easily ignore it all.
I had the help of the elm trees, which hung over the pasture, and the shining river.
There was a school, which I had attended and wished never to see again.
the school where bullies had taken away my lunch and threatened to beat me up,
the same boys who always asked me rhetorically and alarmingly if I wanted to fuck.
I felt as if I were a lifetime away from most of the people I had known.
In those days, I had to help my father, cleaning out the animals’ drinking tins.
I enjoyed this.
The importance of the work, the frequent solitude were just what I liked.
Later on, I had to stay in the house to help my mother.
I was full of resentment and quarrelsome remarks,
particularly when she used that voice of shuddering, even thrilled, conviction.
The wages of sin is death.
My mother would go to the barn to tell on me, to my father.
Then he’d have to interrupt his work to give me a beating with his belt. (This was not an uncommon punishment at the time.)
Afterwards, I’d lie weeping, and make plans to run away.
My father fixed up the house.
We got a bathroom, and the big dining room with the open stairway changed into a regular room with enclosed stairs
The change comforted me in some unexamined way.
My father’s beatings had taken place in the old room
Now the difference in the setting made it hard even to imagine such a thing
I sat down with my feet in the warming oven and read big novels.
Against several odds,
I believed myself a lucky person.
Sometimes my mother and I talked.
I seldom objected now to her way of looking at things.
Several times, she told me a story about a crazy old woman named Mrs. Netterfield, which featured me and took place around our house.
I had been set out to sleep in my baby carriage
on the little patch of new lawn.
My father was away and my mother was doing some clothes-washing at the sink.
Why did my mother decide to leave her washing to look at the driveway?
She did not see my father’s car coming down the lane.
Instead, she saw the old woman,
Now she was running out the kitchen door to grab me out of my baby carriage. She stayed with me in her arms in a corner where she could not be seen.
Did it cross my mother’s mind that the old woman might just be paying a neighborly visit?
I don’t think so.
There must have been a difference in the walk, a determination.
No decent knock on the door.
Just Mrs. Netterfield walking around the house, taking her time, pressing her face and hands against every pane of glass.
In later versions, impatience or anger took hold and then the rattling and the banging came.
I remember asking if my mother knew what had become of the woman.
“They took her away,” she said.
“Oh, she wasn’t left to die alone.”
Our business dried up.
My father pelted all the foxes, then the mink.
Something had come upon us that was even more unexpected and devastating—my mother’s Parkinson’s.
I was her interpreter.
I could always make out what she was saying, though after her voice got thick, other people couldn’t.
I was full of misery when I had to repeat elaborate phrases or what she thought were jokes.
I could see that the nice people who stopped to talk were dying to get away.
After I married and moved to Vancouver, I still got the weekly paper from the town where I grew up.
Often I barely looked at it, but one time, I saw the name Netterfield.
This woman had written a poem about her childhood there.
I once made up some poems myself, though they were lost now, and maybe had never been written down.
I know a grassy hillside
About the River clear
A place of peace and pleasure
A memory very dear–
The same river flats that I had thought belonged to me.
I believe she was remembering it wrong
The sun upon the river
With ceaseless sparkles play
And over on the other bank
Are blossoms wild and gay
She had left out, just as I would have done, the way the spring got muddied up around the horses’ hooves.
She left out the manure.
Across the Iris-bordered stream
The shade of maples spread
And, on the river’s watery field,
White geese, in flocks are fed
This woman said that she had spent her youth in her father’s house
It was where the town ended and the open land began.
Is it possible that my mother never knew this, never knew that our house was where the Netterfield family had lived,
and that the old woman was looking in the windows of what had been her own home?
It is possible.
Who was it who came and took the old woman away?
Perhaps it was her daughter, the same woman who wrote poems.
The one she was looking for in the baby carriage,
Just after my mother grabbed me up, as she said, for dear life.
I did not go home for my mother’s funeral.
I had two small children and nobody to leave them with.
We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves.
But we do.
We do it all the time.
This is not a story, only life.
The Piano Concerto no. 2 stems from my research into Macedonian folk dances and songs while working on my cycle Pletenki (Plaits) for mixed quintet, for Simon Trpčeski’s project Makedonissimo. The premiere of Makedonissimo took place in Ludwigsburg (Germany) in May 2017, performed by Trpčeski, Hidan Mamudov (clarinet, saxophone, kaval), Aleksandar Krapovski (violin), Aleksandar Somov (violoncello) and Vlatko Nushev (percussion). They have taken it to numerous stages around the world (including London, Warsaw and Lille) and future performances are planned for Amsterdam, Liverpool, and Birmingham.
Trpčeski commissioned the 90-minute set of transcriptions of Macedonian folk music and played an important part in selecting the dances and songs from a wealth of the impressive heritage, most of which is yet to be discovered by scholars, musicians, and audiences outside Macedonia. I have only basic ethnomusicological training, so I approached the project with curiosity and willingness to become aware of the specifics of the musical language. However, my aim was to place the songs and dances within my own soundscape, without any ambition of a scholarly nature. Indeed, juxtaposition might have been a better word than transcription, with regard to my approach and aims. While researching the vast materials Trpčeski provided as a starting point for inspiration and discussion, I started to anticipate the gestures and moods with which I wanted to experiment. Some of the material had the potential for a more substantial variation and transformation, going much beyond traditional transcription format. In that sense, the Concerto owes its existence to Pletenki, and the close collaboration with Trpčeski during all compositional stages.
On the other hand, the juxtaposition and structural transformation within the Concerto have a clear relation to my orchestral work, especially Mosaic, the last of my Preludes for orchestra, written over the period 2000-2011. There are no quotes and allusions to folk idiom in Mosaic, and the melodic lines are built on 2- and 3-note motives, often adding up to long and widening melodic gestures, which also blend orchestra timbre and unfold texturally. Therefore, the Concerto is somewhat merging my preoccupations within the last 10 years, with constant rhythmic and melodic transformation as the central engine of development. The quotes that are recognizable come from the following folk songs: Ajde sonce zajde… (The sun has set…), Bre Gjurčin Stojne ubavo (Beautiful Stoyna, from Gjurčin family…) and the energetic Tapan čuka na sred selo (The drum beats in the middle of the village). These three songs are contrasting in character and rhythm. The music that surrounds them often plays with fragments and countermelodies from their orchestral accompaniment. The fragments, which appear at the beginning of the sections, sometimes join into more obvious melodic and ostinato-based structures towards the quotes; instead of theme and variations, such a process seems closer to a fragmentation-unification-fragmentation arch. The irregular meter (and additive rhythms) creates a bouncy, light character, sometimes resulting in unusual layering of mechanical, repeating ostinati (alike minimalist patterns), with an obvious folk-infused sense of human (dance) movement. Indeed, the complexity of rhythmic patterns within the Macedonian folk tradition is impressive; in addition to the most common 5/8, 7/8 and 9/8 (organized as 2223 or 3332), a number of more complex patterns can be found, including 11/8, 13/8 and 18/8 (again asymmetrically organized into 22322322). I find it very interesting to juxtapose different combinations within a single meter, where accents in a certain part do not feel like syncopation but rather a constant resetting of the coexisting patterns, whilst somewhat different to a traditional counter-rhythm. I especially like playing with alternating between coincidence in patterns and temporary, subtle deviations from the homo-rhythmic textures.
In addition to the above-mentioned songs, I incorporated fragments of the song A brej nevesto, oko kalesho (Hey, bride, with beautiful dark eyes) and the dance called Povrateno oro. Macedonian dances are usually danced in circles, and the generic name for such dance is Oro. In spite of the intricate choreography and the need for excellent sense of rhythm, circle dancing is still an essential part of many gatherings and celebrations in Macedonia and the Macedonian diaspora. The social significance of the collective effort is evident, even today, at weddings, birthdays and anniversaries celebrations. I wanted to capture that energy and excitement, in the hope that the orchestral players, too, will feel the opportunity (and the necessity) to move (dance), while performing. In contrast to the complex metric and rhythmic patterns that I tried to carefully unfold and transform, the harmonic vocabulary I work with comes from the modal and jazz tradition. The dissonance is present throughout, often as a result of unfolding pitch patterns or cluster jazz voicings. However, I never try to construct harmony, as I have always felt that I was not in a position to choose harmony; the harmony choses me.
Working on this Concerto has perhaps crystallized some of the methods I had anticipated in my previous works, but it equally leaves me questioning some theories. It seems to me that the orchestral color can provide inspiration for a composition to be started, and the harmonic vocabulary then gives the orchestral color more focus and relates it to tradition (which could also be ignored, if the composer wishes). Working closely with Trpčeski has once again been an extraordinary experience, as his enthusiasm for the folk heritage of our homeland is truly an inspiration to me. At the same time, the notion of virtuosity is, of course, constantly present and asks the composer to (re)think: what does ‘concerted effort’ mean to a contemporary performer (and also the audience)? I tried to avoid the usual forms of engagement and aimed at creating a texture which resembles a tapestry or a kaleidoscope. I am very grateful for Simon’s effort, energy, and passion at all stages; he has been genuinely interested in my vision for this work and has provided valuable feedback. I have learned a great deal from our collaboration.
Grana op.101 for orchestra was commissioned in 2003 by the Young Euro Classic Festival in Berlin. Inspired by the novel Chronicle of A Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez, it springs from a simple idea, which could be seen as a musical expression of a literary structure: the multiple narration of a single event. Thus, the piece tells four stories of the same event, which is presented every time from another perspective. The four movements are:
- Finale appassionato
- Meccanismi (Cancrizans-Études)
- Double Double: Promenade avec “Finale appassionato” vu d’avion.
The work is conceived as a musical form with different time-qualities. It begins with a paradoxically finale appassionato as an introduction, then tells the whole story in a simple and fragmented manner, exposing different superimposed and retrograde mechanisms (rhythmically, melodically, harmonically). The musical discourse becomes more complex, acquiring a visceral quality of the developmental orchestral gestures and ends with a recapitulation of the finale appassionato’s general shape, as “seen” from the sky. The whole composition is irrigated by a harmonic network, which I imagined as an “harmonic labyrinth,” as Bach would have name it.
The title hints the color of the blood. Grana (Spanish for deep red) means, at the same time, life and death, hope and despair.