DOMES
Third Michelangelo Fantasy
A Study of Del suo pel contesta
for Three Players of Thirty Cymbals

by Christopher Fulkerson
CF's Composition Desk
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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 him. 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.

During work on the fourth Michelangelo Fantasy, called Del suo pel contesta ("With Its Billowing Hair"), I realized that the precompositional metrical plan was indicating rhythms that were interesting in their own right. That is never the deliberate plan of one of my metrical designs; I think of them as the bones of the structure, and as long as I think they will function, that is all I care about. They have never been written with the idea in mind that the plans themselves would be music interesting to listen to. I decided that if I could find a way to write the metrical plan itself, with just enough detail to allow the strata to fulfill their formal functions, it might make an interesting percussion piece. The interest in the rhythms was not in their sequence, but in their overlapping, so I decided that a single basic sound that would mix up the rhythms might be good. I decided that suspended cymbals, in enough numbers to keep the form clear, and played both by tapping and by a quick radial scraping of the drumstick along the surface of the cymbal, producing a sibilating white noise with a lot of sonic "aura," would be enough variety and unity of sound to create an unusual, gentle piece. Of course one of the important ideas in the piece is to create a sustained sonic "aura" over the cymbal sounds that changes and metamorphoses according to the events notated in the score - in other words, one of the most important aspects of the sound of this piece is not written in the score, nor can it ever be. The players have to listen to what they are doing, and allow the sound to form itself. It will have a certain shape and predictable features, but as long as human players are involved, that aspect of the piece will never be the same twice.

Since it is in quite exactly the same form as the last Michelangelo Fantasy, I call Domes a "study" of that piece. Its first several performances were given by the percussion ensemble calling itself the Pacific Sticks. It was written in 1996 and is ten minutes long. The World Premiere performance was given on August 22, 2003, by Pacific Sticks, which has performed the piece several times.

The score is 20 pages long, in the composer's fair hand, and includes the program of the World Premiere performance. Hard copy of the Study Score is $10.

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D'altrui pietoso e sol di se spietato
nasce un vil bruto, che con pena e doglia
l'altrui man veste e la suo scorza spoglia
e sol per morte si puo dir ben nato
Cosi volesse al mie signor mie fato
vestir suo viva di mie morta spoglia,
che, come serpe al sasso si discolglia,
pur per morte potria cangiar mie stato.
O fussi sol la mie l'irsuta pelle
che, del suo pel contesta, fa tal gonna
che con ventura stringe si bel seno,
ch'i l'are pure il giorno; o le pianelle
che fanno a quel di lor basa e colonna,
ch'i pur ne porterei duo nevi almeno.

Merciful to others and merciless only to itself,
a lowly creature's born, who with pain and sorrow
clothes another's hand and strips off its own skin,
and only through death might be called truly born.
I wish it were my own fate thus to clothe
my lord's living body with my dead hide,
so that, as a snake sheds its skin on a rock,
likewise through death could I change my condition.
Oh, if only the furry pelt were mine
which, with its billowing hair, makes such a robe
that has the luck to bind so fair a breast,
so I'd have him in the daytime; or the slippers
that make themselves a base and support for him,
so I might carry him for at least two snows.

 

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