THE MAGIC CYCLE:
MERE MAGIC MUSIC Paganini Variations and a Fantasy, Set One
MEDIUM MAGIC MUSIC Paganini Variations, Set Two
MAXIMUM MAGIC MUSIC Paganini Variations, Set Three (In Progress)
For Eight Antiphonal Female Voices, SSSSAAAA
|by Christopher Fulkerson|
DOWNLOAD the performance Mere Magic Music
Around 1989 Elizabeth Appling, founder and then Music Director of the San Francisco Girl's Chorus, where I had by then worked for seven years as Music Theory Director, asked me to write something for her. It was not to be an actual choral piece, and this fact I relished; it was to be for her new ensemble of soloists drawn from the Concert Chorus, the senior and most skilled group from the five the Girls Chorus then included. This group was eventually called the Virtuose, and consisted of eight solists, basically the section leaders of the Concert Chorus. They had all been my students in the Theory program, in which I had for years taught a competently rigorous version of fixed chromatic solfege and the rudiments of music, though there were many times I was able to impart basic concepts of voice leading and composition, as well as some essential music history. I well knew the singing and musicianship skills of these particular eight girls, which we on the faculty could be proud were formidable by any standards. It was understood that their musicianship studies were an important part of what made them good. When once, for drama night at Chorus Camp, the girls did a comic send-up of the faculty, their "costume" consisted of holding my Vocal Musicianship book in their laps, to show that they were "faculty."
I had of course for years wanted to write a work for the Girls Chorus, but naturally the sketches I had made involved a much larger group than the eight soloists of the Virtuose. I searched for interesting texts to set to music, and kept getting sidetracked with my earlier ideas for the entire Concert Chorus. (These sketches still await a project.) The deadline began to approach by which I would have to deliver the score and I still didn't have a clear idea of what I would write. Somewhere along the line I had the idea to do an arrangement and expansion on the Paganini Caprice Variations. Naturally part of the attraction to this idea was that no one had ever written vocal variations to this theme, without a doubt the most popular among composers for variation sets; as far as Iknow, my two completed sets are the only such vocal Paganini variations ever written. I tinkered around with the Paganini set and found it worked rather well; I found that the eight female voices could between them approximate the virtuosity of a violin quite brilliantly. I met the deadline for the commission by writing MERE MAGIC MUSIC, consisting of eight variations resembling to varying degrees those of the original Paganini set, followed by a longer, more freely composed variation that acts as a finale. The ensemble writing is written for an antiphonal placement of the soloists, in the following disposition:
Of course, a more conventional lineup of singers 1 through 8 from left to right will not produce bad results, but there are frequent antiphonal effects in this music, including not just side-to-side and forward-and-back calling and echoes, but the casting of motives and phrases clockwise and counterclockwise, even going both circular directions simultaneously, and these effects become more sophisticated as the Magic Cycle progresses.
I enjoyed writing the piece and Elizabeth's terse description of its reception by the girls was "They love it," always good news to a composer. Certainly, this is unabashed "ear candy." The texts are nonsense scat syllables chosen entirely contextually, mixed in with syllables from the Hebrew Names of God, associated with the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. (As I have described in the Program and Notes to the Concert of May 10, 2009, persuant to my work on The Festival I was reading widely in philosophy and religion, and this reading was in all the major religions and their magical and/or mystery traditions as well, so after I looked into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which every student of modern literature should at least know about, I began to learn some Kabbalah, which eventually led for me not to mysticism but to a new hobby, that of cryptography.) Most of the variations are far from slavish transcriptions of the Paganini originals, and one of them made a terrific "laughter" variation, which the girls perform marvelously on the CD MODERNISM FOREVER, where it is known by the title I first gave it, Mera Musica Magica. Since this piece was written for younger musicians, and grew out of a tonal piece, its idiom was perforce pretty conservative, but its psychological profile, and the fact that it is the first of a series of three projected pieces that each increase in the relevance of their idiom, allows for it to be included among my principal works. It is one of the few sets of variations ever written for voices (I know of only one other, by Samuel Barber, which I have not heard), and I am pleased that its form resembles that of an instrumental composition more than most pieces for vocal ensembles. To achieve this, I have to dispense with a conventional text, and write according to the musical idea. Ever since I was in the Conservatory at UOP I have felt that choral music is a quite stultified art, limited as its programs generally are to mere successions of songs, what I call "string of ditties disease."
MERE MAGIC MUSIC was completed in 1990 and is seven minutes long. Its world premiere was given on an SFGC program entitled "Newer and Newer Music for Trebles 1952-1990" on June 2 in Oakland, and June 3 in San Francisco, California. Later, Elizabeth and the girls did several unedited studio runthroughs of the piece at Hayward State University; I chose one of these recordings for inclusion on my double CD set MODERNISM FOREVER.
Before even completing the commission for the Virtuose, I decided to do something more rigorous for the same ensemble using the same antiphonal possibilites. I wanted to revisit the same material, but write wholly original variations. I also wanted to increase the rigor of the sequence of sections beyond that of most sets of variations, to form a tighter shape, again more redolent of instrumental compositions than the trivial "string of ditties" that so often arises in music for vocal ensemble. I had studied the Bach Goldberg Variations closely, played them many times, and knew well their contrapuntal and metrical designs. I decided that a set of "character pieces" would be interesting, and cast it in the shape of the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck. This seemed to me to develop naturally out of Paganini's notorious reputation as a sorceror of the violin. I was interested in creating these archetypes and found it was possible to choose material according to the place on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life that each Arcanum occupies: each Arcanum links two Sephiroth, and therefore each variation could be crafted of material from more than one musical archetype.
Along with the conventional writings I had been reading, I had glanced through some of the voluminous literature of "channeling" that was then flooding the bookstores. I found one, and only one, intelligently done book of this type, a series of four books called THE RA MATERIAL by Don Elkins, Carla Rueckert, and James Allen McCarty, which they published privately. These books contain what is by far the most thoughtful description of the Major Arcana that I have ever read, and I took the titles for the variations from this book. (Later, I learned of channelings by Mrs. WIlliam Butler Yeats and by Aleister Crowley, but I have not yet gotten around to giving them a proper reading. I doubt they will exceed the coherence THE RA MATERIAL.)
A natural conclusion to the second set of variations occurred with the ending of the Fifteenth Variation. I named the piece MEDIUM MAGIC MUSIC, and this will soon be followed by MAXIMUM MAGIC MUSIC. Each of these pieces grows progressively more modern in idiom. SHEER MAGIC is pretty much an agreeable trifle that drums up a lot of energy and enthusiam; the magic is more palpable in MEDIUM MAGIC, where slightly more advanced idioms, resembling Richard Strauss or Jazz, among others, are evident; MAXIMUM MAGIC will be pretty much modern throughout, and its seven character study variations will complete the Major Arcana.
The Variations of MEDIUM MAGIC MUSIC are entitled:
Theme: The Choice
It will be immediately seen that these "Arcana" are not described with their Kabbalistic terms, which appear in the score but are of lesser significance, but with titles that indicate their place in a complete mental, physical, and spiritual system, one that I find more fruitful than any other I have found. I feel there is real psychological merit to these categories, which are not the elusive and muddy mysticism of yore. The work was completed in 1996 and is 23 minutes long. Portions of it were given in 1998 at the concert I called CHRISTOPHER FULKERSON AND HIS FRIENDS. The score is 162 pages long, copied in the composer's fair hand. Hard copy of the Study Score is $40.
The Variations of MAXIMUM MAGIC MUSIC will be:
I expect to finish this piece sometime in 2010.