DEL SUO PEL CONTESTA "With Its Billowing Hair"
Fourth Michelangelo Fantasy
for Violin Solo with Two Violins and Two Violas
|by Christopher Fulkerson|
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Each of the four Michelangelo Fantasies is inspired by the sonnet below, which Michelangelo wrote, probably to his friend Tommaso de' Cavalieri, in about the Spring of 1535; the poem was found on the back of a letter sent to Cavalieri. The metaphor is that of the silkworm (the "vil bruto," which can also be translated "vile animal," of the poem), whose cocoon, the medium of its self-transformation, is used as the source of silk, from which beautiful garments for others are made. "The motif of being skinned can be traced back to the myth of Marsyas, flayed for challenging Apollo, and to Saint Bartholomew, whom M portrayed in the Sistine 'Last Judgement' holding his flayed skin, whose face is M's self-portrait. Ideas for the 'Last Judgement,' commissioned in 1534, were taking shape at the time of this poem." This remark is by the translator James M. Saslow, whose translation is used by permission of the publisher.
Heard together the Michelangelo Fantasies describe a progress from gruff to elegant, and from low to high. The gruffness of the Duo nevi gradually transforms, quite in the manner described in the poem, into an articulate elegance, at the end of the Del suo pel contesta; the "vile brute" becomes billowing hair. And while the ceiling of the high notes is always the same, being the high notes possible on the violin, the bass line of the cycle physically rises: the Duo nevi has available to it the lowest notes of the contrabass, but the next piece, L'altrui man veste, for string trio, has as its lowest possible notes only those of the cello; the last piece employs only violins and violas. So the cycle describes a gradual ascent. There is some iconographical development as well. The silkworm can be heard crawling around in the bass part of the first piece in the cycle; in the second piece, in the cello part, and later in the violin part. So the being, the silkworm, rises in pitch to ascend to the air as it metamorphoses into a higher being. By the last piece in the cycle, the worm-type creep-crawly figure is gone, and the piece is all about flying and maintaining strata. The description of rising is a very important phenomenon in my music, where in several pieces water rises, rather than falls, and the transcendental significance of rising is part of the form and detail of the Buddhist mantra cadenzas in the Celestial Sixties cycle. The cycle also can be heard as a progress from Michelangelo's supposedly gruff personality to the sheer beauty of his finished work. The violin figure called the hammerstroke becomes increasingly important in the cycle; by the last piece, it is the basis of the solo violin part. But hammering is not all that a sculptor does; there is finer chiseling, and polishing. Both of these last sculpting acts can be heard in the final piece of the cycle; the polishing is especially easy to hear, depicted as it is by the violas' bowed tremolo; the fine chiseling, in the violins' fingered tremolo. The simplest way to hear the Michelangelo Fantasies is as a progress from the artist's exalted personality, to the artwork's elegant beauty. In this way we can find Michelangelo becoming his artwork, which is indeed one reading of the poem. We all become what we do, and for this reason I urge artists to create what they love; I love excitement and adventure, and sublime developments in the air of optimism, and that is what I think I create. Composers of the world, compose yourselves!
To arrive at the emotional expression of my "auralizations" I often create line drawings that suggest to me the expressive curve of a piece. From these I create graphed plans, equivalent to an architect's drafted plans. I have long maintained that music is an art which is best pursued from "both sides of the equation:" some of the magic is in the details, but musical feeling, and the real magic, is not in the details, it is in the form. Coordination of detail and form enhances and blends both the effects and the nature of detail and form, so that detail can affect the form, and the form can sieze the moment. But the real work is in the planning, and the realization of the form. The graph to the right is not a dressed up version of one of these, it is the one I actually worked from. The horizontal aspect is the temporal one; the vertical indicates the scale of ten tempos that were used in the piece. In the Duo nevi, it is not difficult to hear that the violin part gradually becomes faster and faster; this is a result of the increasing speed of the stratum used to create the violin line. The numbers on the graph here were the ones used in the Duo nevi; for the other Michelangelo Fantasies, other figures were used.
This fourth Michelangelo Fantasy was written to a commission from the violinist John Casten, who plays both violin and viola and maintains an active electronic studio. John wanted a group of miniatures on which he could play both instruments, overdubbing all the parts himself. Glad to get the commission, I asked him whether it might be all right to write the miniatures in such a way that would be overlapping; in this way I could fulfill the commission, and at the same time make use of my multiple-strata formal methods to create a larger form that I felt would more gratifying. I was pleased about the previous two Michelangelo Fantasies and decided to put the miniatures together according to this same plan, using different numeric values better suited to the ensemble and the projected circumstances of overdubbing. Further, each miniature would be cast in the shape of the plan too, so there would be some self-similarity at work as well: the miniatures that are the sections have the same shape as the overall form. Such self-similarity has appealed to me for a long time, and fascinates me about fractals; I plan to learn more about these and consider using their structures in musical works.
In order to make John's recording process as easy as possible, since I wanted his effort to be a breeze to accomplish, I felt that duets featuring first species, that is, note-to-note types of ideas, would be best. Before long I discovered that the simple overlapping of these sorts of miniatures would not be interesting to listen to; there just wasn't enough dynamism in the relation between material and form. So I went back to John and asked him whether a single violin solo over the top, made also of miniatures, would be interesting to him. He liked the idea, and that is how a group of miniatures became a pocket violin concerto. The piece was written in 1996 and is thirteen minutes long. It was first performed at Fulkerson Hall at Humboldt State University with John Casten playing the solo violin and myself conducting, on May 29, 1998.
D'altrui pietoso e sol di se spietato
Merciful to others and merciless only to itself,