Saturday, October 26, 2013

407. PROGRAM NOTES for MIDRASHIM, for violin and marimba (2013)

Composer Lewis Saul (b. 1952) graduated with a degree in Composition from the Interlochen Arts Academy and attended The Juilliard School before moving to Paris, where he studied with Nadia Boulanger for two years.

Midrash means "story" (Midrashim is the plural). A clever Rabbinic device, midrash is a method of interpreting the biblical text in a wide-ranging, free-wheeling, almost stream-of-consciousness style -- somewhat resembling the head-scratching, double-entendre writings of the great Zen masters.

As an example, the two words from my opening movement generated over 17 separate commentaries in the Midrash Rabbah -- a massive collection of the Rabbinic midrashim -- including this unusual, seemingly challenging observation:

"Thus, whoever comes to say that this world was created out of tohu and vohu and darkness, does he not indeed impair God's Glory! R. Huna said in Bar Chappara's name: If the matter were not written, it would be impossible to say it..."

... "it" being followed by this footnote:

"God first created tohu and vohu, and out of these He created the world. But this is not to be taught publicly!" (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis I, pp. 2-3).

The sages spun extremely complex webs of word association and pun-like wordplay in their attempts to imbue the Bible verse with new meanings and interpretations, sometimes going far afield from the original text.

In that spirit, I have composed two separate midrashim for five verses from the Torah -- one from each book. In most cases, the "plain text" inspired a kind of musical midrash, perhaps less concerned with the actual textual meaning and more inspired by the possible midrash-like free association technique:

1. MIDRASH Ia. The longest of these ten movements, it is also perhaps the most literal. What is before the beginning? Do I dare teach this publicly?

2. MIDRASH Ib. Perhaps there was a phase variance in this pre-universe! (Yes, I love Star Trek.) Steve Reich -- one of the pioneers of minimalism and a master at using phased musical phrases -- has always been inspiring to me. Halfway through the movement, the violin shifts to a 9/8 + 7/8 meter, thrusting against the regular 4/4 of the marimba. Planets collide, nebulas sparkle, dark matter permeates...

3. MIDRASH IIa. The previous verse 25 reads: "If you take your neighbor's garment in pledge, you must return it to him before the sun sets; ..."

This is a mitzvah, a commandment -- one of 613 in the Torah -- but my concern is with those two Hebrew words in verse 26 -- "in what else shall he sleep?" God not only explains the (humane) reasoning behind the commandment, but He promises that He will follow through.

The feeling of "closeness" is intended here, as if wrapped in a warm, slightly atonal, blanket.

4. MIDRASH IIb. This is perhaps more literal, i.e. communicating compassion.

5. MIDRASH IIIa. The idea of something holy or sacred gradually coming to mean something real in one's life.

6. MIDRASH IIIb. This is a sort of tongue-in-cheek homage to Mozart, whose music seems to me always holy! The half-step modulations are a salute to the crazy intentional dissonances in "The Musical Joke," K. 522.

7. MIDRASH IVa. This verse is familiar to Jews and Gentiles alike -- it is read in nearly every worship service, and is the pinnacle of every Jewish boy or girl's Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

The commentaries suggest that the Rabbis interpret this particular verse to be a general blessing for material and spiritual well-being. Thus a high-energy, feel-good movement, followed by ...

8. MIDRASH IVb. ... a calm and relaxed hymn of thanksgiving -- nervously cut short.

9. MIDRASH Va. The key Hebrew word is the verb RODEF -- "to chase or pursue." My wife's synagogue in Pittsburgh was called Rodef Shalom ("pursue peace"). As I composed these segments, I thought about how difficult it is to truly follow or pursue the really important things in life -- but yet at the same time, how absolutely critical it is that we all at least try to do so!

This is a literal metric chase between the two instruments -- very short and aggressive. The difficulty.

10. MIDRASH Vb. And the trying. Here -- in a sinuous 7/4 rhythm -- the two instruments combine to dream, hope and work together.


-- Lewis Saul


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