Notes on Heart & Breath
by eighth blackbird
The wild vagaries of the heart unite the four works on this disparate first half, which runs without a break.
Duo for Heart and Breath by Richard Reed Parry (of indie band Arcade Fire) connects the rhythms of the physical body to the rhythms of the musical performance. Musicians wear stethoscopes, which enable them to play in synch with their own heartbeats. At other times, players are in synch with their own individual breathing. According to the composer, “The idea is less about ‘performing’ and more about directly translating into music the subtle, naturally varying internal rhythms of the individual players.”
Two italian madrigalists sing keening laments of love and loss. Claudio Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa sighs in waves of resignation, anger and hope: “I want him back, just as he was, if not, then kill me... love mixes fire and ice,” sings the solo soprano (re-cast as viola) while three tenors (flute, clarinet, cello) rock her to sleep: “poor woman, poor woman.” Carlo Gesualdo’s lament, Moro, lasso (originally written for small vocal ensemble), is altogether darker, bleaker, as a lover sinks into the dissonant, chromatic mire: “I die in my suffering, and she who could give me life allows me to die.”
Bon Iver’s anthem, Babys, shines welcome light, perhaps winking at the very different “carnival” to come in Amy Kirsten’s work:
Summer comes to multiply, and I’m the carnival of peace
I’ll probably start a fleet with no apologies
And the carnival of scenes, it grows more and more appealing
But my woman and I know what we’re for.
by Mark DeChiazza
When I first began work on Colombine’s Paradise Theatre, I wondered what compelled Amy, as contemporary composer, to revive the iconography of the commedia dell’arte. I noticed that she had composed the musicians’ parts so that an instrument is sometimes the voice of a character while at other times it isn’t. For example, the piano can be the voice of Colombine, but sometime it is simply a piano in the mix. I came to realize that this structure is analogous to commedia—characters put on a mask, instantly assuming an identity, and when they take of the mask they are simply an actor. Since the mask organizes meaning, it is even possible for more than one actor to wear the same mask simultaneously. The mask conjures a context through which we interpret the expression of a performer’s body and voice. But there is a tension between the identity of the performer—especially a contemporary performer—and that of the commedia character she inhabits. To step into the shell of Colombine the performer must surrender some of herself. Likewise, on stage Colombine occupies a luminous world of constructed fantasy that simultaneously confines and liberates her. I think actors, musicians, dancers all experience this unique dichotomy: the feeling of being wildly free—free to explore even the strangest darkest places—and the constraint of being completely contained within and controlled by the shape of a work.
by Amy Beth Kirsten
Colombine’s Paradise Theatre (2010-2013) is a musical fantasy on a 17th-century form of Italian theater known as commedia dell’arte and includes well-known characters from that art form – Colombine, Harlequin, and Pierrot. Although those characters are an essential part of the work, the piece has its own language and logic, and it is not necessary to know the commedia tradition to follow Colombine’s Paradise Theatre.
One way to think of this work is as a “storybook poem” – “storybook” because of its linear structure, colorful characters, and use of imagery; and “poem” because of its associative and multifaceted relationship to meaning. In other words, information about individual characters as well as the relationships between them are reinforced on many levels.
Colombine’s Paradise Theatre presents a series of eleven scenes that form a whole: Colombine is caught in a haunted repetitive loop and is lingering in a world between death and life. As she struggles to find her way, she is torn between contrasting forces that orbit around her – the narcissistic Harlequin aims to possess her while the benevolent Pierrot tries repeatedly to send her a message of truth. There is a kind of narrator throughout, the Harbinger – he serves as a guide as well as a witness to Colombine’s struggle.
Why commedia dell’arte?
The essential elements of commedia are these: it uses stock characters (masked and unmasked) that have exaggerated, archetypal qualities; it is extremely physical and virtuosic; and much of it is improvised. These elements resonate deeply with me in the following ways: First, character is what compels me; I love to create sound worlds that reflect specific characters and their struggles. Next, I often compose music that asks instrumentalists to simultaneously vocalize and play. There are two important consequences to this: the music is deeply tied to breath and also to the body – which makes it virtuosic not in the number of notes that are played, but in what is physically required of the performer to render it effectively. Breath and movement indeed inform every aspect of this piece. Finally, like the commedia, Colombine’s Paradise Theatre often has an improvisational sounding quality, though it is all carefully notated and structured.
Why eighth blackbird?
This is an ensemble of world-class musicians that memorizes new music, that likes to express musical ideas by incorporating movement, and one that is made up of individuals who each embody a spirit of fearlessness. When I first heard them perform about ten years ago, a seed of possibility was planted. The result is this new work. eighth blackbird’s musicianship and experimentation caused me to want to dig deep and go to unknown places – to seriously stretch myself as a composer. To me, there is no other way to walk through the dark than with the light of possibility – light that, in this case, a flock of blackbirds helped me find.
Colombine’s Paradise Theatre would not exist if not for the inspiring and creative partner I found in Mark DeChiazza – a collaborator whose ability to delight in the questions enabled all of us to push beyond what we thought was possible. Also many thanks to pianists Paul Kerekes and Daniel Schlosberg for their help with the development of snare.