on music and beauty

Tag: ritual

Persistence of ritual elements

Notes for a talk I gave during Birmingham Conservatoire’s Research Days in 2002.

Persistence of ritual elements in 20th century music. A composer’s view

The ritual process in its various declinations, from tribal rites of passage to Greek tragedy, from religious ceremonies to the dynamics of social behaviour, is a powerful concept that can be applied to many seminal musical works of the last century. This paper aims to show briefly how the ritual dimension has been approached by composers, from Stravinsky to Berio, and how ritual elements are surprisingly attuned to many issues of today’s music.

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We can talk of ritual in relation to music and performance on two levels:
1. The ritual aspect of a performance, the rite of the concert, so to speak. It’s the frame that allows the performance to take place, and the sequence of events is very much like a ritual process. The analogy with the classical sequence of a rite of passage, as first described by Arnold Van Gennep in his seminal work Les rites de passage (Paris, 1908), is telling: there’s a separation, with a threshold to cross – the concert space – that transforms a number of individuals into an audience, then a marginal phase, the actual performance, and eventually a reintegration, when, after applause and sharing of comments, the audience is disassembled, and becomes again a sum of individuals. The origin of the word entertainment – from the old French entretenir – to keep separated, relates with this need to create a marginal, liminal space for the performance. Liminal comes from the Latin limen, meaning boundary, threshold, limit, from where comes preliminary, liminary and postliminary. To mimick even better the classical similarity with an actual rite, often we also have someone waving authoritatively a baton, as a high priest in charge of the ceremony. In the words of Joseph Kerman in Concerto Conversations, “the symphony concert remains one of the few arenas left for ritual interchange and display by the wealthy and powerful, and while this elite has grown and is growing exponentially, it has yet to invent alternative means of self-celebration”.

2. The second level is when the model of a ritual process, or elements of it, are used in a composition, and translate in the musical sphere the concepts and dynamics attached to human rituals. This is the way of looking at rituals in music that interests me most, and will be dealt with at some length. My aim is to show how employing ritual elements and models in music can amplify and unmask the connection with hidden archetypes, in the Jungian sense. This has two very concrete outcomes: it allows to bring to the surface profound similarities between very different musical styles and cultures, and gives unifying power to the music outside of the specific language being used. More importantly, it allows to bypass the issue of the language almost completely, and justifies the coherence of works that show apparently a rather confused stylistic approach – at least according to traditional language-based analysis tools.

As it has been shown by Stephen Walsh in his recent books devoted to Stravinsky, especially in The Music of Stravinsky (OUP 1988), the preoccupation with ritual elements is constant with the composer, and comes back and again like a red thread across all the different creative periods of his life. What is relevant to our main argument here is how the ritual approach enabled Stravinsky to channel the latent archetypal forces of Russian folklore into Modernist musical constructions: the ritual as a way to tame the wild and chaotic energy of nature and incorporate it into defined works of art, re-enacting a function of ritual common to most tribal societies.

How do we identify the ritualised elements in Stravinsky’s music? Some of his works are evident recreations of existing rituals – like Les Noces (The Wedding), and many others deal with – for example – fertility rituals or sacrifices under many different covers: Rite of Spring, of course, then Oedipus Rex, Persephone, Orpheus, etc. In other works where the ritualised element is not explicit, it is to be found in the character of the music. Let’s see how we can define this character, and how it has been subsequently employed by other composers working in the same direction.

There are a number of characteristics that belong to the “ritual” field:

Static, frozen
Incantation – Apotheosis
Universalising, unity of action

Every one of this terms extends in very interesting directions, and could be used to write a cross-section history of music in recent years. The idea of non-expressive, for example, is about using ritualised expression, i.e. objective, against the subjectivity of Romanticism, but of course as Stravinsky himself said, not less moving because of that, on the other hand probably more moving (see the Symphonies of Wind Instruments). Stravinsky’s search for a mechanical production of sounds – especially in relation to Les Noces – is well known. Interestingly enough, the purposefully non-expressive white voice, without vibrato, is a characteristic of a number of African initiation rites.

The use of frames: we have seen at the beginning of this conversation how the ritual process involves the definition of a separated space, where the rite can take place. The framing devices that we find in works like Renard, Les Noces, Oedipus Rex, Persephone, by using a narrator, situate the story in a suspended space-time, and underline the ritual character of the action. The work becomes a ritual act, the re-enactment of a ritual drama. The frame creates distance. The connection with the parallel research of Meyerhold in the theatre, with the Theatre of Masks, is rather important, and this goes straight to Grotowski.

One of the most powerful compositional devices to confer on music a ritualised character is of course the use of repeating melodic, harmonic and rhythmic cells. Of special importance is the substitution of harmonic syntax with shifting harmonic fields. When we talk of harmonic fields we talk of static, non functional sets of pitches, that instead of obeying the rules of organic and dynamic growth, are layered and shifted, like planes in a Cubist painting, to give an idea. The internal movement of the fields can be extremely agitated, frenzied, but the overall impression is of a static landscape, since development happens by shifts of position and juxtaposition between different elements, rather than transformation.

The perfect example of this kind of ritualised music is the incantation effect, the kind of trance-like, multi-layered endless circular motion so characteristic of many Stravinskian endings, from the Symphony of Psalms to the Requiem Canticles, from the “Cantique” – 3rd of the Three Pieces for String Quartet_ to the Symphony in C, Apollon Musagète, etc. The effect is of a frozen landscape slowly turning on itself. In his fundamental book Musique et transe Jean Rouget shows how the incantation music of many trance-inducing rituals in tribal societies follows the same patterns. It is an easy step from here to contemporary techno in its various declinations of ritual, ambient, trance, and so on.

The need for ritual and popular music
In rave parties the DJ becomes a shaman, the master of ceremonies, while the venue, usually a warehouse, becomes a church. Rave as TAZ, Temporary Autonomous Zone, identical concept to the liminal phase of the ritual process according to Victor Turner.
Rave as a “trance device”, where the individual drowns in the collective rite, losing the sense of self. In the dichotomy figure/background, the figure fades away, the background becomes important. The big techno revolution is in this layering of sounds, and in the loss of the melody/accompaniment model of pop music. Background as a surface on which anything can be projected, where any sound objects can be layered freely. The background is the ritual dimension itself, the static element that allows the rite to set in. The electric body, vibrating and pulsating with the music. The Dionysian principle in its basic form. Repetitive is an adjective that of course can be used for what has been called Minimalist music.

One of the ritual elements that have been more successful in 20th century music is the non-narrative plot, the circular closed action, often inspired by a classical myth, and re-enacted as a ritual drama over and over again. And indeed, the perfect territory for the investigation of non-narrative techniques, is the music theatre and the opera. Writing for the opera the composer interested in a ritual approach is faced with the possibility of merging into one the two aspects that I outlined at the beginning: the ritual of the performance can indeed become the performance of a ritual. This is because in operas we can see in action both the external ritual of the performance, and the ritual nature of the opera itself. The example of Wagner’s Parsifal shows how tempting it is to think of opera as a kind of sacred performance, a religious celebration.
It comes then as no surprise that composers have looked at the non-narrative examples of ritual structures, from Greek tragedy to Japanese No theatre, as a way to overcome the stale narrative formulas of 19th century opera. If we take two works as different as Luciano Berio’s Outis, premiered in Milan on 1996, and performed again in Milan and Paris in 1999, and Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus, we see how in both of them the composers used the same story, or rather the same mythical, symbolic sequence of events, and repeated it over and over again, seeing it from different angles, in the best tradition of Levi Strauss’ structural anthropology. In Outis – meaning “no one” in Greek, and inspired by Ulysses – the same series of symbolic events is repeated five times (initially it should have been six times), always starting with the same event, the death of the father. Another work by Berio that fits the description of a ritual drama is Passaggio (1961), on a text by Edoardo Sanguineti, a real modern example of a passion play.

Berio defines all his works written for the theatre as “musical actions”. The term has not really been employed widely, but he insists on using it. For Berio a musical action is a theatrical action that is generated and determined by the music. Music in control, so to speak, like in Wagner’s operas. In truth, there’s not much action to speak of in any of his operas. Without a story, and a story projected onto the music – as Kerman says – opera becomes a lyrical form , a ritual form, a plain entertainment form, or any combination of the three, but it loses its status as a dramatic form.

I became interested in rituals while working on my opera Magma in the mid-90s. I know that the ritual approach can be misleading for its immensity. The risk is always present of falling prey of the globality of the ritual approach. Think about the following; the indo-european root for the word is _ar-_, from which the following words also derive:

Ornate, Adorn

It is a powerful cluster of concepts, but too open. In fact, a lot of things can be interpreted as a ritual process, and it is very important to maintain an alert critical mind when dealing with rituals. An example of this is the work of the social anthropologist Victor Turner. He started from the basic triadic sequence of separation, margin, reintegration – as postulated by Arnold Van Gennep – and used it to define the very nature of social interaction, social crisis, social change. Following his personal experience with the Ndembe population in Africa, Turner saw how social dynamics in time of crisis in the life of the village were not “free”, but rather followed a determined sequence of situations that reflected a ritual process. By focusing his attention on the marginal – the liminal phase of the ritual process – Turner has been able to show how the reshuffling and reordering of society values during the liminal phase is the most creative time in the history of a society. This is a powerful intuition that can be extremely useful for composers, because it allows them to look at historical events or human behaviour with a deeper knowledge of the common model that they follow. A model that can be reinterpreted and translated into music, and still preserve some of its archetypal energy.

© 2002 Lamberto Coccioli

Critica a Teorema di Battistelli

Giorgio Battistelli – Teorema
Deposito ATAC, Roma, 12 maggio 1996

Un’opera senza canto, senza voce, a parte apodittiche enunciazioni dal Cantico dei Cantici. Una scommessa difficile, anche con l’apporto prezioso della regia di Ronconi, e non completamente riuscita.

La musica: amplificazione un po’ scura, forse per colpa dell’orchestrazione, così impastata. Il problema della musica, che dovrebbe essere l’elemento creatore e trainante del dramma, della narrazione, consiste nel fatto che, essendo piuttosto strutturata per episodi chiusi, alternati da rumori “daily-life” tipo cucina di ristorante o bar ministeriale, non permette di individuare un percorso drammatico, tanto meno legato, anche ellitticamente, a ciò che avviene sul grande ring-tatami rettangolare di sabbia.

Entrando in aspetti più tecnici, la musica mi è sembrata molto verbosa, indistinta, roboante e poco definita, sempre come un alone wagneriano di sonorità impastate. Il continuo ricorso a tutta la palette orchestrale la rende quasi sempre uguale a se stessa, e l’utilizzazione di due percussioni etniche, non riuscendo a integrarsi timbricamente con il flusso orchestrale (anche perché suonate in uno stile, appunto, etnico), accentua anzi ancor più la monotonia timbrica dell’orchestra. Qui e lì sprazzi di luce, ma per la maggior parte del tempo frammenti motivici pseudo-espressionisti sparsi fra i vari strumenti, affogati in una sonorità degli archi sempre presenti, sempre sovrapposti; a parte alcuni soli melodici su percussioni ostinato (violoncello, violino), il tessuto musicale è proprio un tessuto: un tappeto intrecciato allo stesso modo, dai colori tutto sommato abbastanza scialbi.

A teatro funzionano le cose semplici, e Battistelli arriva a questa profonda verità in alcuni momenti, i migliori dello spettacolo: ma anche qui, come nel pianto di Emilia del II atto, dove i suoni incantati e sorprendenti dei bicchieri spazializzati creano veramente l’atmosfera “ritualizzata” del mondo contadino, Battistelli non può fare a meno di muovere quella linea tesa pp dei violini nel registro sovracuto, per infletterla sulla curva di una melodia banalissima, che fa crollare tutto. Se fosse rimasta ferma, avrebbe funzionato tutto molto meglio. La paura del silenzio, anche quando esso è strutturale, ha sempre fatto grandi danni… nel finale, invece, aiutato dal super-effetto dell’accensione simultanea di tute le fiammate intorno al ring, e dalla superba recitazione dell’attore che interpreta Paolo, il rituale riesce a passare dallo spettacolo al pubblico, e scena e musica si integrano a vicenda in un nodo di possibile commozione. La musica aveva preparato, con i fendenti di fiati ff, la scena finale, che però, fino alla fiammata, si era svolta in un’atmosfera di passabile noia. Un altro elemento di disturbo delle percussioni etniche viene nel primo tempo, quando lo zarb suona ininterrottamente – sulla superficie dell’orchestra che fa altre cose – lo stesso frammento ritmico per centinaia di volte, a volume molto alto (amplificato e ruotante): il risultato è di nausea, perché non c’è integrazione, non c’è contrasto, ma solo sovrapposizione di due elementi ripetitivi e disomogenei, dai caratteri musicali però fortemente connotati, il ritmo tribale da una parte e l’orchestra novecentesca dall’altra. Il risultato non è felice.

In genere, a parte la fine, ma come ho già detto, largamente aiutata dall’effetto e dalla parte dell’attore, lo spettacolo mi è parso molto noioso, o almeno, non conseguente nella relazione che si stabilisce tra scena e orchestra. E la scena a volte non ha niente a che fare con la musica; in dei momenti riesce a creare un suo statuto estetico autonomo, e allora lì la musica diventa gratuita e non necessaria, come una radio accesa sullo sfondo, senza ragioni drammatiche o spettacolari o anche solo “circensi”: in quei momenti è staccata, spalmata sullo sfondo, inutilmente verbosa e movimentata; in altri momenti la scena è di una povertà assoluta, di immagini e movimenti, e allora l’orecchio si tende verso l’orchestra, per cercare di spostare il filo del divenire drammatico nella dimensione musicale, ma viene presto deluso, come ho già detto, dalla sostanziale omogeneità del materiale musicale. E’ questo un problema da tenere ben presente quando si scrive un lavoro per il teatro musicale: il tema caro a Berio della simultaneità di eventi contrastanti tra loro che ogni tanto si ricompongono in unità drammatica per poi tornare ad allontanarsi su percorsi diversi è estremamente soggetto ai pericoli dell’ascolto e della visione; in altre parole l’attenzione, spostandosi sempre su quello dei percorsi che è più movimentato, più evidente, sia esso musica o immagine, determina il prodursi di uno “sfondo” virtuale nella mente dello spettatore sul quale vanno a poggiarsi momentaneamente tutte le dimensioni dello spettacolo che in un dato momento non sono pregnanti, evidenti, e che non concentrano su di sé l’attenzione. Insomma, o si lavora sull’integrazione di elementi distinti in vista continuamente di una superiore unità di immagini, testo e musica, anche nella loro apparente diversità, o si lanciano percorsi diversi nelle tre dimensioni, lasciando che si incontrino in alcuni momenti. Ma allora, quando essi non si incontrano, delle tre dimensioni due (o in alcuni casi una) diventeranno sfondo e solo una sarà presente allo spettatore.

Diventa dunque fondamentale, in quest’ottica, il controllo dello sfondo, vale a dire un sistema che permetta di valutare la funzione dello sfondo nel quadro più ampio della drammaturgia dell’opera (dico questo con Outis e Magma in mente). Se non si tiene presente questo aspetto, non si può essere sicuri che la propria idea di teatro musicale riesca a passare al pubblico, anche perché, come diceva Busoni, «a teatro il pubblico deve fare tre cose: pensare, guardare, ascoltare, ed è risaputo che il pubblico può fare solo una di queste tre cose alla volta».

© 1996 Lamberto Coccioli

Magma, or the See-Through Wilderness

Magma is about ritual and our relationship with nature. The traditional rites of passage from nature to culture – once powerful instruments of social integration and knowledge – do not exist anymore. Yet, humans still need rituals. To be meaningful today a rite of passage needs to take the inverse route, and go from culture back to nature.

In Magma a woman lives through different experiences that bring her close to an unexpected understanding of nature, as a frenzied, violent and irrational force, as a living magma perpetually regenerating. When her “inverted” rite of passage is over, the woman realises that her new awareness cannot be shared, and that there is no going back.

An old Nordic folktale introduces and frames the action. It sets the mythical mould that forms the basis of the woman’s behaviour, and allows a better understanding of the ritual dimension of the plot.

The idea for this work came from my personal experiences in a faraway country, while music and narrative evolved from the desire of setting up a reaction between different cultures, using – in a kind of inverted ethnology – the cultural criteria of so-called primitive societies to analyse and unmask our own behaviour.

The text of the libretto is by the Germano-Irish poet and writer Sebastian Schloessingk.

In Magma there are a number of musical and theatrical issues that I wanted to explore:

  • The relationship between speech and song, and the way to convey meaning in operatic writing: there are two actors on stage, and their speech is measured, without being rhythmically altered. At the same time key words from their text are sung by two singers for each actor. The singers are like added dimensions to the stage characters, and project musically the meaning of the words.
  • Real-time control of electronics in performance. The production of Magma took advantage of a new tool for live electronics, the MSP set of audio objects for the Max programming environment for the Macintosh. MSP had just come out in 1998, and in Magma it is used among other things for real-time convolution of voices and percussion with different sound sources. Magma is the first major Italian music production to use MSP.
  • Research in dynamic harmonic fields: they become elastic entities that follow closely the dramatic structure of the work. While writing an opera for the stage, compositional procedures should be closely related to, and even dependent from the dramatic structure of the work. Harmonic fields become here elastic, continuously self-modifying entities, that adhere as a second skin to the dramatic surface of the opera. On top of their fundamental harmonic identity, these fields may acquire – according to the dramatic situation – other dimensions. A historical one, in the shape of a direct intersection with patterns of notes clearly belonging to a given style, or a geographical one, where musical elements from distant cultures are integrated in the harmonic structure of the fields.

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Commissioned by CIDIM, the Italian National Music Committee, together with the Rossini Theatre in Lugo di Ravenna and the Toscanini Foundation in Parma, Magma was premiered in Lugo in March 1998, with the following interpreters:

Alessandra Cecchini, Soprano
Margherita Salio, Mezzo-soprano
Maurizio Leoni, Baritone
Danilo Serraiocco, Bass

Francesca Brizzolara, Donna
Gabriele Volpi, Uomo

Denise Fedeli, conductor
Gigi Dall’Aglio, stage direction
Tiziano Santi, stage design
Tempo Reale, live electronics
Orchestra del Teatro Rossini di Lugo

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