New stuff often gets inspired by old stuff. That will be part of what’s happening this week when a piece called “How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights,” by the contemporary Swedish composer Magnus Granberg, will get its U.S. premiere at a performance by the Polyorchard ensemble at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro for a free concert.
The piece involves video scores and aleatoric, or chance, elements, where the performers choose from among a selection of different possible melodic or intervallic instructions. As a result, because of the near infinite combinatory possibilities, no two performances of the piece will fully resemble each other. So, in that regard, the composition is very much of the 21st century, using techniques and philosophies, derived in part from composers such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Brian Eno, that have over the decades made their way more and more into common practice.
“How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights” is also, in another sense, a piece of music that points back to older musical traditions. The title refers to a song by the great Elizabethan English composer William Byrd. (The Byrd song is called “O Lord, How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights.”) That song was a setting of a love poem by the poet Philip Sidney, a contemporary of Shakespeare. Granberg’s piece draws not only its title from the Byrd composition, but it also uses fragments of melodic lines and rhythms, transposed, inverted or otherwise tinkered with. This technique might sound modern in terms of its collage-istic approach, but in fact medieval and Renaissance composers routinely borrowed and repurposed secular music, like drinking songs or folk melodies, and put them to use in church music, sometimes stitching together disparate bits to create a new sonic tapestry made in part of the pre-existing material. The opposite happened as well, with snippets of church music making its way into folk songs. (Listeners would probably be hard-pressed to hear the connection between the Byrd and the Granberg pieces without knowing that it was there.)
Triangle-based bassist David Menestres leads the Polyorchard ensemble, which will consist of seven musicians and two dancers for this performance, and Menestres is responsible for bringing Granberg’s piece to the region. I spoke to Menestres by phone from his home in Durham last week. Menestres first heard a recording of Granberg’s piece over the summer and became interested.
“I was really intrigued by it,” Menestres said.
He emailed Granberg to find out more about the score. “I was really curious about how it was organized,” Menestres said.
Granberg sent Menestres versions of the score. The idea of a performance took shape quickly after that.
Once he had a look at the score, Menestres got a better sense of the structural logic underpinning the recording he had heard. Granberg’s score includes written verbal instructions, musical notation, and video time cues. There are dynamic and tempo suggestions and instructions about repeating phrases, playing permutations of those phrases, repeating those, allowing fragments to be left out and generally gravitating toward a kind of gentle dematerialization of the sound groupings. Each player has a set of four parts that consists of variations of some of the core intervallic and rhythmic material. The video score serves as a kind of fancy stopwatch, providing temporal cues for the players to move between those four parts throughout the 40-minute piece.
There’s a central melodic phrase, or cell, which Granberg calls the “cantus firmus” part, a term that refers to the core line, generally taken from somewhere else, that a polyphonic composition is built around, sort of a musical substructure and motif which other voices play against.
“Technically it’s not a complicated piece,” Menestres said. “The material that is provided to you is pretty simple. But, philosophically, I think it’s a really difficult piece because you’re working and playing around the melody.”
In Granberg’s recording of the piece, notes hover and dissipate in a slow-moving cloud-haze. It’s mesmerizing, but the repetitions are not so relentless as to be mechanical, and the variations are generally subtle enough to feel more like organic drift than forced change. And it’s not without its slightly shrill and biting moments, though even those come at you like shafts of bright light over a dusky landscape.
Menestres likens the musical material to fragments and shards.
“It’s like building something out of negative space,” he said. “Eventually you do get the melody, it’s just shattered into a million pieces.”
Menestres is no stranger to bold re-interpretations of foundational musical materials. He and several of the players of this iteration of the Polyorchard ensemble regularly accompany Greensboro’s own avant-garde folk-experimentalist Eugene Chadbourne, who routinely draws on pop, rock, country, folk, classical, jazz and other musical traditions for his fearless deconstructions and hyped-up homages. Menestres was a music student at UNCG, graduating in 2003, and he still has ties with the department there. (This event will also include a performance by UNCG music professor Steven Stusek of a composition by fellow instructor Steve Landis.)
In a way, Granberg’s treatment of or borrowing from Byrd fits in with other currents in contemporary music. The music of the English Renaissance has been getting a fair amount of attention from experimentalists, conceptualists and others in recent years. In 2001, Canadian sound artist Janet Cardiff made an installation that used 40 speakers to create an immersive experience of dense polyphony in a space, where listeners can walk through the sound almost feel the voices wash over them in the air. The New York-based composer Nico Muhly has orchestrated versions of some of Byrd’s motets and written about the power of Byrd’s music. Folk-rock and vocal harmony icon David Crosby has expressed his admiration for Byrd’s music. And music blogger and former Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson wrote about the captivating effect of a recording from 1971 of legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould playing some of Byrd’s music.
From Menestres’s perspective, Granberg’s piece balances the need for structure and freedom nicely, and the variation built into the composition makes for endless possibility.
“This is one of those pieces that I could play a thousand times, and it would never sound the same, ever.”
Polyorchard performs the U.S. premiere of Magnus Granberg’s “How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights?” at UNCG’s School of Music Recital Hall on Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m. The performance is free and open to the public.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.