INVISIBLE CITIES: music inspired by the imagination of Italo Calvino

by wijeratneworks

The creation of this large-scale project was made possible by generous support from Arts Nova Scotia. It received its world premiere on April 4th, 2014, given by TorQ Percussion Ensemble & the University of Saskatchewan Wind Orchestra, led by Darrin Oehlerking.

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TorQ Darrin

NB: This is an ongoing (continually updated) post, serving as a composition journal of my work on a new concerto for TorQ Percussion Quartet.

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“He was the only great writer of my time”Gore Vidal on Italo Calvino*

*and that’s saying something, lest we forget the line from an episode of Frasier: “Gore Vidal?! He hates everything!”

JUNE 10, 2013 – JANUARY 2014


Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities has long been one of my favourite books. It is a literary work like no other, singular in vision and execution. I have chosen to use a small handful of its ‘cities’ as inspiration for movements of a large scale musical composition. The final movement is inspired by OLINDA:

“In Olinda, if you go out with a magnifying glass and hunt carefully, you may find somewhere a point no bigger than the head of a pin which, if you look at it slightly enlarged, reveals within itself the roofs, the antennas, the skylights, the gardens, the pools, the streamers across the streets, the kiosks in the squares, the horse-racing track. That point does not remain there: a year later you will find it the size of half a lemon, then as large as a mushroom, then a soup plate. And then it becomes a full-size city, enclosed within the earlier city: a new city that forces its way ahead in the earlier city and presses its way toward the outside. Olinda is certainly not the only city that grows in concentric circles, like tree trunks which each year add one more ring. But in other cities there remains, in the center, the old narrow girdle of the walls from which the withered spires rise, the towers, the tiled roofs, the domes, while the new quarters sprawl around them like a loosened belt. Not Olinda: the old walls expand bearing the old quarters with them, enlarged but maintaining their proportions an a broader horizon at the edges of the city; they surround the slightly newer quarters, which also grew up on the margins and became thinner to make room for still more recent ones pressing from inside; and so, on and on, to the heart of the city, a totally new Olinda which, in its reduced dimensions retains the features and the flow of lymph of the first Olinda and of all the Olindas that have blossomed one from the other; and within this innermost circle there are always blossoming – though it is hard to discern them – the next Olinda and those that will grow after it.”  – Hidden Cities 1

As soon as I read this, it occurred to me that the growth of OLINDA, as he describes it, is fractal in nature. Henceforth, I’ve spent many days researching fractals and related issues with geeky fascination. A good excuse to watch some TED talks, a couple of which are about fractals.

A fractal is a curve or geometric figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole. I find myself ruminating on how I could musically depict the self-similarity of OLINDA, as each new city blossoms from its ancestors over time. I think of the earth crackling in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and those fantastic effects in John Adams’ Shaker Loops (‘Loops & Verses’) which sound to me like trees growing at high speed, your mind’s ear acting as a sort of time-lapse camera (skip to 4’40”):

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDkDbREV_XI]

I’m hearing OLINDA’s ‘expansion of walls’ in sound as, for example, streams of repeating chords. They increase in pace, perhaps also in pitch and in density, and can therefore be visually represented in sketch form wedge-like shapes. Since these are essentially triangles, one can think of the famous Sierpinski triangle:

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To make wedges of the equilateral triangles, I rotated and squished (technical term) the Sierpinski triangle, superimposing it on manuscript paper. The x-axis represents the flow of time. I’ve added a few thoughts such as dynamics, and some sample pitches. The ‘expansion’ begins from everyone’s favourite note, middle C:

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The shape is too geometric for my purpose; I need something a little disorganized, so I thought about each little wedge (representing growth or ‘wall expansion’) breaking loose yet remaining within the overall framework:

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I hope that, in this way, some self-similarity is preserved while infusing the structure with a more organic, shall we say more chaotic, quality. They abound in nature of course:

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All of this has at least given me something to go on. Next, I try to figure out how to make some music out of it!

JUNE 11


I’m having fun coming up with some fractal musical FX! With a little dressing up, they make for very interesting textures, but it’s painstaking and time-consuming work as always (days like today remind me that if I’d gone into web design instead, I’d be charging by the hour and making much more money).

What I’ve done below is take a simple tone row (D# E B G# E D# A A) and set it at different tempi (from slowest to fastest: the glock moves in quarter notes; the piano in dotted 8ths; the vibes in 8ths; the flute in 16ths but then ‘mutates’, aha). And can we take a moment to say how much we ADORE Balinese pentatonics?! They make me swoon.

Listen below for the computer MIDI rendition. I’ve used some stopped horns and a timp gliss to add ‘glue’ to the texture:

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I like to think that the whole effect conjures up an image of, say, that tree branch….or maybe the lightning bolt if there was more density and some good ol’ fortissimo aggressivo.

The shape of the row, incidentally, is that of the Danish composer Per Nørgård’s so-called infinity series, a self-similar melodic line. For the last few days, I must have googled this a million times; I find it utterly fascinating and will do my best to blog about it at a later date. Below is the chromatic version, whereas my version above will demonstrate that you can have fun using any pitch set that jingles your bell :)

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JUNE 12


Re the ‘wedge’ shapes I spoke of above: I’m hearing them as phrases that rhythmically ‘compress’. That is, the pulses that make up a phrase get closer and closer together:

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This is essentially a calculated accelerando effect, which you hear all over the place in Carnatic (South Indian classical) music. It’s not the kind of acceleration in sound you get when you hear ball bounce and come to a state of rest. Rather, it’s more mathematical since the durations of the pulses decrease in a more ‘man-made’ way, as above (half notes, dotted quarter notes, quarter notes, etc.)

In Carnatic music, there are some crazy complex phrases that rhythmically compress, which they call ‘reductions’. I’m not writing for Carnatic musicians so, to keep my material relatively simple, each pulse will sound four times before decreasing in duration. If you start with whole notes, you get a long ‘compressing’ phrase that is 52 quarter notes long (click to enlarge):

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Out of this can be derived shorter and shorter phrases, by starting further and further along, as indicated by the slurs. This now gives me lots of options. For instance, If I want a ‘compression’ that is only 10 beats long, I start from the first quarter note. I made one more chart to give me some more options; but this time each pulse is heard only twice:

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Methinks the charts themselves are starting to look a bit fractal(!)  I started to have fun when I used static chords for the pulses. Here is a loud, climatic compression that is 24 quarter notes long:

Hmmm, at this point I’m mildly panicing, thinking that I have unsuspectingly plagiarized Harmonielehre by John Adams. Oh well, can’t be helped. Here are two compressions played back to back – one from each of the charts above – 8 quarter notes long and 6 quarter notes long:

JULY 1


While it’s been some time since I last updated this page, I certainly haven’t been idle. Today I have a meeting with Richard Burrows, of TorQ Percussion, to show him what material I have thus far composed of this concerto. Richard and I also need to make a stage plot, which is crucial for making sure that all the musicians (possibly 60) can share the same stage. Not forgetting that the massive amounts of percussion will take up a lot of space. (At this point I usually ask myself why I keep taking on these epic projects. After this concerto is done, it’s time for little fanfare for solo piccolo).

Concerto structure & form


I am working off an 'architectural' plan for the whole concerto that is tabulated below. The fourth movement, based on Calvino's 'Invisible City' of ERSILIA, is practically done. I wrote this movement first because my commissioners very astutely and pragmatically requested that one of the movements be for the four TorQ percussion soloists only. Consequently, it may be removed from its large-scale concerto context and performed as a chamber piece in their quartet recitals. Deciding that a soloists-only movement could adequately serve as a cadenza, I came up with the following 'architectural' plan for the whole concerto. The Calvino cities I have chosen are listed in capitals:

1. VALDRADA (medium tempo)

2. ARMILLA (slow)

3. CHLOE (fast, scherzando)

4. Cadenza – ERSILIA (medium to fast)

5. OLINDA (fast, majestic)

Movement III


For the third movement (of a five movement concerto) I have chosen the city of CHLOE. When you first read it from the book, you notice that it is broken subtly into four parts. I have spread these out more obviously below:

In Chloe, a great city, the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping.

A girl comes along, twirling a parasol on ther shoulder, and twirling slightly also her rounded hips. A woman in black comes along, showing her full age, her eyes restless beneath her veil, her lips trembling. A tattooed giant comes along; a young man with white hair; a female dwarf; two girls, twins, dressed in coral. Something runs among them, an exchange of glances like lines that connect one figure with another and draw arrows, stars, triangles, until all combinations are used up in a moment, and other characters come on to the scene: a blind man with a cheetah on a leash, a courtesan with an ostrich-plume fan, an ephebe, a Fat Woman.

And thus, when some people happen to find themselves together, taking shelter from the rain under an arcade, or crowding beneath an awning of the bazaar, or stopping to listen to the band in the square, meetings, seductions, copulations, orgies are consummated among them without a word exchanged, without a finger touching anything, almost without an eye raised.

A voluptuous vibration constantly stirs Chloe, the most chaste of cities. If men and women began to live their ephemeral dreams, every phantom would become a person with whom to begin a story of pursuits, pretenses, misunderstandings, clashes, oppressions, and the carousel of fantasies would stop.

It certainly contains some kind of narrative. Below, I have continued to break apart its structure, adding and naming sections which will serve to outline my (personal) interpretation of the text. I have also coloured any words that inspire me musically:

NARRATIVE I  In Chloe, a great city, the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping.

CHARACTER SKETCHES I – A girl comes along, twirling a parasol on ther shoulder, and twirling slightly also her rounded hips. A woman in black comes along, showing her full age, her eyes restless beneath her veil, her lips trembling. A tattooed giant comes along; a young man with white hair; a female dwarf; two girls, twins, dressed in coral.

NARRATIVE II Something runs among them, an exchange of glances like lines that connect one figure with another and draw arrows, stars, triangles, until all combinations are used up in a moment, and other characters come on to the scene:

CHARACTER SKETCHES II – a blind man with a cheetah on a leash, a courtesan with an ostrich-plume fan, an ephebe, a Fat Woman.

NARRATIVE III – And thus, when some people happen to find themselves together, taking shelter from the rain under an arcade, or crowding beneath an awning of the bazaar, or stopping to listen to the band in the square, meetings, seductions, copulations, orgies are consummated among them without a word exchanged, without a finger touching anything, almost without an eye raised.

EPILOGUE/CODA – A voluptuous vibration constantly stirs Chloe, the most chaste of cities. If men and women began to live their ephemeral dreams, every phantom would become a person with whom to begin a story of pursuits, pretenses, misunderstandings, clashes, oppressions, and the carousel of fantasies would stop.

Removing Calvino’s text and adding some more musical detail of my own:

PROLOGUE/INTRO. – X
          NARRATIVE I – A1 (‘street scene’ theme?)
                    CHARACTER SKETCHES I – B1
          NARRATIVE II – A2
                    CHARACTER SKETCHES II – B2
          NARRATIVE III – A3
EPILOGUE/CODA – X1?

When you add a prologue, or perhaps just a short introduction to mirror the epilogue, the whole structure takes on some sort of palindromic, palindrome-ish quality. I think there is some scope for adventure here.

JULY 2


Typing up my notes from a great meeting in with TorQ percussionists Richard Burrows and Jamie Drake. I’m a little closer to finalizing the list of percussion instruments I will need. In no logical order whatsoever:

4 snare drums, bass drum(s?), tom toms, roto toms, 16 (2-octave diatonic) tuned pipes, vibes, glock, toy glock (maybe), crotales, 20″ Chinese cymbal, bender gong, sizzle gong w/chains, mbao gongs (maybe), triangles, shakers, cajon, djembe, darabuka, ewe drum, cabaca, anklung (maybe, but yes please).

3. CHLOE (MIDI):

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5. OLINDA (MIDI):

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