WijeratneWorks

the blog of musician Dinuk Wijeratne

Category: music

Tsimo!

The first piece from my 2012 Halifax JazzFest show is finally out on video, thanks to the boys at the CBC! I have used this blog to follow the gestation of this epic ‘song’, so if you would like to explore this in more detail please click on a tag at the bottom of this post.

In case you are wondering about the lyrics, I mentioned them in a previous post. I used one of the quatrains from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, in a very beautiful (and liberal) translation by Edward Fitzgerald:

I sent my soul through the invisible, 
some letter of that after-life to spell,
and by and by my soul return’d to me, 
and answer’d: “I myself am heav’n and hell”

This after attempting to write my own lyrics and deciding, shortly thereafter, that it is something best left to the professionals. My favourite section of the whole piece is the very last one, beginning around 15’30”, when young Reeny Smith (20 years of age at the time of recording) quite simply knocks the lyrics out of the park :)

Concerto for Tabla & Orchestra (2011)

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“The piece is fantastic, complex, and brilliant. The orchestration and solo writing are masterful. I didn’t think one could pull off [such] a concerto, but Dinuk did. I don’t know of anything like it. The audience went crazy after it for good reason.”
John Corigliano

“Dinuk Wijeratne’s Tabla Concerto is a breath of fresh air in the repertoire – a vibrant, colourful piece that orchestras love to play, and audiences will never forget.”
– JoAnn Falletta
 
(Music Director: Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra & Virginia Symphony Orchestra; Principal Conductor: the Ulster Orchestra)

“Dinuk is one of the most gifted musicians I know. His Tabla Concerto is a pioneering work of musical fusion, a seamless integration of the most complex aspects of North Indian Classical Tabla music into a totally Western model.”
– Bernhard Gueller 
 
(Music Director: Symphony Nova Scotia)

“Dinuk Wijeratne’s Tabla Concerto is a fresh, engaging, cross-cultural, embracing and original piece, which blends cultures marvellously. Combined with Sandeep Das’ virtuosity and energy as soloist, the concerto delighted both audience and orchestra at its US premieres. To include tabla recitation in the last movement was a stroke of genius.”
– Alastair Willis 
 
(Music Director: Illinois Symphony Orchestra)

“Dinuk’s Concerto for Tabla and Orchestra is utterly spectacular. From the moment it begins, you are drawn into an evocative world where cultures have no barriers, and co-exist in a way that is completely natural. Add to that a high octane, colourful score and everyone…musicians, audience, conductor…all leave excited and looking for more!”
– Robert Franz 
 
(Music Director: Windsor Symphony Orchestra, Boise Philharmonic)

 

Listen to all three movements:

1. Canons, Circles

2. Folk song: ‘White in the moon the long road lies (that leads me from my love)’

3. Garland of Gems

♠♣♥♦

World premiere given by Ed Hanley (Tabla) & Symphony Nova Scotia conducted by Bernhard Gueller on February 9th, 2012, @ the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Recorded live by the CBC. First Canada-wide broadcast: Sunday January 27th on IN CONCERT, CBC Radio2. The Tabla Concerto was a finalist for the 2012 Masterworks Prize. 

INSTRUMENTATION:

2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo)
2 oboes (2nd doubling cor anglais)
2 clarinets in B♭ (2nd doubling bass clarinet)
2 bassoons

2 horns in F
2 trumpets in B♭
1 trombone

timpani
2 percussion

harp

strings

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PROGRAM NOTE:

1. Canons, Circles
2. Folk song: ‘White in the moon the long road lies
(that leads me from my love)’
3. Garland of Gems

While the origins of the Tabla are somewhat obscure, it is evident that this ‘king’ of Indian percussion instruments has achieved global popularity for the richness of its timbre, and for the virtuosity of a rhythmically complex repertoire that cannot be separated from the instrument itself. In writing a large-scale work for Tabla and Symphony Orchestra, it is my hope to allow each entity to preserve its own aesthetic. Perhaps, at the same time, the stage will be set for some new discoveries.

While steeped in tradition, the Tabla lends itself heartily to innovation, and has shown its cultural versatility as an increasingly sought-after instrument in contemporary Western contexts such as Pop, Film Music, and World Music Fusion. This notion led me to conceive of an opening movement that would do the not-so-obvious by placing the Tabla first in a decidedly non-Indian context. Here, initiated by a quasi-Baroque canon in four parts, the music quickly turns into an evocation of one my favourite genres of electronic music: ‘Drum-&-Bass’, characterised by rapid ‘breakbeat’ rhythms in the percussion. Of course, there are some North-Indian Classical musical elements present. The whole makes for a rather bizarre stew that reflects globalisation, for better or worse!

A brief second movement becomes a short respite from the energy of the outer movements, and offers a perspective of the Tabla as accompanist in the lyrical world of Indian folk-song. Set in ‘dheepchandhi’, a rhythmic cycle of 14 beats, the gently lilting gait of theTabla rhythm supports various melodic fragments that come together to form an ephemeral love-song.

Typically, a Tabla player concluding a solo recital would do so by presenting a sequence of short, fixed (non-improvised) compositions from his/her repertoire. Each mini-composition, multi-faceted as a little gem, would often be presented first in the form of a vocal recitation. The traditional accompaniment would consist of a drone as well as a looping melody outlining the time cycle – a ‘nagma’ – against which the soloist would weave rhythmically intricate patterns of tension and release. I wanted to offer my own take on a such a recital finale, with the caveat that the orchestra is no bystander. In this movement, it is spurred on by the soloist to share in some of the rhythmic complexity. The whole movement is set in ‘teentaal’, or 16-beat cycle, and in another departure from the traditional norm, my nagma kaleidoscopically changes colour from start to finish. I am indebted to Ed Hanley for helping me choose several ‘gems’ from the Tabla repertoire, although we have certainly had our own fun in tweaking a few, not to mention composing a couple from scratch.

© Dinuk Wijeratne 2011

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72 Carnatic Modes

A ‘mode’ in musical terminology can have many definitions, but certainly a well-known one is that of a ‘scale’ or ‘melody-type’. Of these there is a gloriously rich abundance, when you consider their use in the various musical cultures of the world. Take the Carnatic (South-Indian) modes, or ragasfor instance. There are 72 fundamental melakartha (parent) ragas, from which other ‘descendants’ may be generated. If you ever find yourself curious about them, as I occasionally am, here they are in Western notation. Admittedly the chart below is quite crude in its Westernized format, but at least this will serve as some kind of resource for the composer, improviser, or lifelong student. I apologize for the scrappy look of these digital images, but if you click on them they will at least enlarge for further clarity:

Another JazzFest teaser: HymnPeace ‘Re-ReMixed’

Only last week did I finish writing all the music for the brand new electro-acoustic project WijeratneWorks, featuring the illustrious DJ Skratch Bastid, which is set to debut at the Halifax JazzFest this summer. Of course, one has never truly ‘finished’, because any show containing improvised content will continue to evolve and demand alterations.

The project has become quite the roller-coaster of discovery, and frankly I wouldn’t have it any other way. Until now, I have primarily existed in a totally acoustic world, as I can dutifully answer any questions you may have about how to make something sound good on oh, say, a flute. But change the subject to pre-recorded samples and loops on a set of turntables, and I’ll happily start pestering you with questions. Thankfully, Paul (Murphy) – a.k.a. Skratch Bastid – was kind enough to submit to my pestering when we met this week to go over all the music I’d written for the show. There were over 100 samples to go through. We hung out, we chatted, we got the laptops out, we jammed. It turned out to be one of those überinspiring sessions you spend with a musician who gets excited about the same things you do, and who also helps you find great excitement in things you have overlooked.

It was utterly fascinating for me to observe him in action up-close as he explained many technical things that sent me straight to geek-heaven: his choice of software; good attacks and decays of samples; how he visualizes the motion of the turntable in a typical 4-bar loop; ‘turnarounds’ at the ends of loops; how mid-frequency sound-files make for better scratching than high or low ones; etc.

(I have no idea whose hands these are btw)

When he spoke it reminded me of similarly scintillating moments I’ve experienced in the company of percussionists holding berimbaus, famous accordionists and tabla players among others, who have graciously and passionately demystifed the wonders of their instruments for me through show-and-tell. I find that the limitations of an instrument are just as thought-provoking as its possibilities, since both force you to come up with solutions.

DJ Shub goes forth to represent Canada in the international finals

It was certainly the kind of week to intrigue and stimulate, since on Saturday night I was at the Palace in Halifax, where Paul and DJ Jazz Jeff (yes, him!) were adjudicating for the Red Bull Thre3Style Canadian National Finals (five young DJs going head-to-head with only 15 minutes each to establish their superiority), while on Tuesday I was at C.P.Allen High School to watch Paul and students premiere a piece for DJ and wind ensemble, conducted by their visionary teacher Nathan Beeler.

Molto, MOLTO cool.

I was actually beside myself with excitement for most of the day and it wasn’t until the evening that I realized why: firstly, turntables in conjunction with live instruments is just plain cool; and secondly, I was at the inception of something so unusual and totally unexpected.

Nathan Beeler and some chap who presented him with the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence

Getting back to JazzFest, the band and I will be playing a 60-minute set that I had originally intended to be a bunch of short pieces, but now have realized into three contrasting 20-minute epics, each with plenty of peaks and troughs, nooks and crannies, premeditated moments and unintentional ones (the best kind). In trying to imagine a good closer for the set, I thought I’d attempt an electro-acoustic ReMix of an older piece of mine entitled HymnPeace. It already exists in the form of an ‘orchestral remix’ (commissioned by the CBC for Symphony Nova Scotia and Buck 65; boy what a killer night that was), and a ‘trio remix’ which actually premiered at the 2008 Halifax JazzFest (another highly memorable evening for me, as I often feel nostalgia for the audience singing at the very end). The essence of HymnPeace is a simple melody which one can complement with whatever-else, and arrange and orchestrate into whatever-size. So maybe there will come a time for further incarnations, but for now I’m hearing a remix that goes from atmospheric synth pads through indian drum loops and tabla kaidas to a bit of headbanging euro-trance. The latter starts here:

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/38482655″ iframe=”true” /]

ANY CHARACTER HERE

I apologize for the highly compressed audio quality, but that’s SoundCloud for you ;)  As I mentioned in the previous post about this project, this is only a mock-up that is done primarily to give me and the musicians something to listen to and practise with as we prepare for the show. It is a condensed exposition of material that will ultimately be embellished in performance, and is missing all the live elements, not to mention Skratch’s, er, scratching.

NYC diary: exhausted, I’m spending the night in for a change

I’m in New York City again this week. As usual it amazes me how, with little or no planning at all, one can attend utterly unique events back-to-back. On Sunday night, it was to Avery Fisher Hall (yes, the one where you can hear Mahler 9 complete with incessantly ringing cellphone) for the Essentially Ellington concert.

On Monday night, I was at the United Nations General Assembly Hall (yikes yes, the one we’re used to seeing daily on TV) to celebrate the International Day of Vesak, a Buddhist holy day. After accepting, last-minute, an invitation from the Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN, it felt somewhat surreal to find myself sitting in that space, listening for hours to speeches by delegates from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, and Indonesia.

And on Tuesday night, it was for the groundbreaking Spring for Music Festival to witness the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra make their debut at Carnegie Hall (yes, the one you have to practise to get to).

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I’d like to mention Sunday’s Jazz evening in some detail. This celebratory concert was the high-spirited culmination of the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival. Annually organized by Jazz-at-Lincoln-Center, it is just one part of one of the most innovative jazz education events in the world. How fortuitous for me, during my listening-to-everything-Ellington-phase, that I was able to hear the three finalist high school bands perform selections from Duke’s magnificent oeuvre in front of, and alongside, their mentors: the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO). Their standard of performance was astounding, and they had been whittled down from over one hundred applying bands from across the USA.

The evening’s program had been designed so cleverly: in the first half, the band finalists each performed a couple of Ellington pieces, including one which would feature a soloist/mentor from the LCJO. For me, Walter Blanding stole the show.

In the second half we got a real treat: the LCJO played an entire set of Ellington. Yeah baby. As you can imagine, by this point I was in Ellington heaven. If you’ve never heard this ensemble play, then just know that they can simmer, cook, and boil your house down in no time at all:

Wynton was particularly low-key on Sunday night. But hey, he was there and he took a solo. Btw, I’ve read many sick bios in my time, but his is the sickest.

Sitting there on Sunday night, I couldn’t help think that we were one of the most educated Jazz audiences the LCJO would ever play for. I mean, pressed into the front rows of the venue were hundreds of high school musicians – no doubt the cream of the USA’s youth Jazz elite – who had just spent an entire year scrutinizing the very repertoire that their heroes and mentors were now performing live in front of them. The youth knew every riff and every rhythm of this music. Whenever a soloist pulled out a killer solo, they would swoon in harmony with every phrase. Before long, the air was filled with cheers and whoops from the audience that were so precisely timed, it was hard to imagine that these vocals were not part of the original musical fabric. But wait, maybe they were….this was a live concert of the LCJO playing Ellington.

Ancient Persian poetry through a vocoder

This July 12th I appear again at the Halifax Jazz Festival, certainly one of my favourite musical forums for creative expression and appreciative audiences. I am proud that ‘my city’ can create such a wonderful, artistic atmosphere in this annual event, that also capitalizes on the fact that Nova Scotia is a darn great place to spend the summer. Ah yes, the Haligonian Summer. Heaven knows we wait long enough for it. Bring on the warm waterfront vibe!

I am debuting my new electro-acoustic project, that I still haven’t found a name for (yikes, suggestions please, our publicity people need the name yesterday). I’ll be on keys, and I’m putting together a wikid little band whose featured artist is a both a top Canadian DJ and one of the great turntablists of the world: Skratch Bastid. I’m so looking forward to working with him.

I’ve decided to write three large, contrasting pieces for the set. Totally new territory for me since I’m putting together samples that DJ Skratch Bastid will hopefully enjoy scratching the crap out of. The acoustic instruments on stage will play over and around this. For the first piece, entitled TSIMO (right now can’t be bothered to explain the convoluted ‘why’), I’ve chosen to set a quatrain from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, as translated by Edward Fitzgerald. Killer lyrics, if you ask me:

I sent my soul through the invisible, 
some letter of that after-life to spell,
and by and by my soul return’d to me, 
and answer’d: “I myself am heav’n and hell”

For the coda (conclusion) of TSIMO, I don’t particularly want to inflict people with my singing, so instead I went through several steps to create an alternative sound that would still communicate the text:

  • Firstly, I recorded myself speaking the text in my best Sir-Laurence-Olivier-Shakespearean-soliloquy voice (or Sir Ben Kingsley, if you prefer someone who can orate as well and is still alive. By the way, his On Point interview is fantastic).
  • Secondly, I took my software scissors to it and chopped up the whole poem into very short phrases.
  • Thirdly, I had to synchronize the phrases, even individual words and syllables, to a click-track running at the tempo of the song (120BPM). This is a painstaking and time-consuming process that also includes time-stretching certain vowel sounds to fit the click-track. This is all done to make the vocals, well, ‘cook’. Nothing whatsoever to do with cuisine, but frankly I can’t think of a better verb for sounds that lock right into a groove . A great film that has crisp cuts akin to the rhythms of a great piece of music, has editing that ‘cooks’.
  • Finally – the fun part – I fed the vocal samples through a software vocoder, making me sound as though I’ve been turned into an android that speaks in harmonic tones. I had to pick the harmonic tones. They’re actually chords from a Schubert string quartet. This is what I ended up with:

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/45430316″ iframe=”true” /]

ANY CHARACTER HERE

The main thing to bear in mind, when listening to a ‘mock-up’ for a show like this, is that it is only a condensed exposition of material that will ultimately be embellished live in various ways. Notably, all ‘loops’ which repeat, such as ‘heaven and hell’, will most likely be scratched many times over by our esteemed DJ. Which means that a recorded 2-minute coda will probably double or triple in length in live performance.

On musical temperament

To all those orchestral musicians now hoping to count their bar rests down at the local pub: I suspect you’d probably only pull this off with reasonable accuracy if you’ve had some serious dance training with Merce Cunningham.

Disc of the month, May 2012 – Live Ellington gets me hot ‘n’ bothered

This past academic season, I taught composition at Acadia University while my esteemed colleague Derek Charke (of recent JUNO fame) was away on Sabbatical. It was a sincere pleasure for me to work with the students of the department. The personal perks of travelling to the gorgeous town of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, each week included the two hours of solitude I got to spend in the car. Prime opportunity for listening to lots of music, my favourite NPR show (On Point), and all the awesome BBC  radio shows I download onto my iPod (more on how I actually rip these later, evil laugh). Naturally this post can take me on any number of tangents from here on, but I’ll stick to the point and mention that one of the BBC programs on vintage Big Bands got me a serious Duke Ellington habit. I’ve had this addiction before, in college. It’s rather pleasant, I warn you. Needing my Ellington fix, I come across a totally random CD in the Acadia Library entitled ‘Hot Summer Dance’. It’s a winner for me in every sense. I listened to it non-stop for several days.

I should say that Ellington ‘Live’ is very special indeed. It’s not as clean as some of the studio stuff, but boy does it have fire. Has there ever been another Big Band of Big personalities, crammed into one unified unit, led by such vision to create such electric performances? The problem is that capturing them ‘live’ is not easy by any means. Enter producer Bob Thiele, who has somehow mic-ed up these guys with startling intimacy. We get the sense of the largesse of the venue’s acoustic – a ‘hot’ summer dancehall – and yet the intimacy of the band is right there: their comments to each other; Duke’s count-ins (gotta love ’em); the breathiness of the wind playing in all its glorious nuance. At last we have stereo depth from a live Ellington album.

I could go on an on, but you should listen to a track for yourself.

There are no decent clips out there, so I uploaded a favourite track to Youtube. It’s not on iTunes, but you can buy a hard copy from amazon.com. Interestingly, I decided not to choose an Ellington original, but his arrangement of a popular standard. The magic of this ensemble is all there: the sheer creativity of the groove, almost lop-sided sounding; Duke’s articulation on the piano, endearingly shaky; Jimmy Hamilton’s first phrase (swoon); the way the orchestration builds organically and effortlessly toward that first big tutti.