Saturday, November 12, 2011

Process of Writing 26: Lagniappe

The concept of a lagniappe was one I first heard many years ago from a New Orleans native. It's the extra little bit the baker puts in your bag, or the grocer, or the fishmonger, as a gift of neighborly friendship, sometimes as a reward for one's loyal custom. The baker's dozen is a kind of lagniappe. The extra piece of candy thrown in for free. One online dictionary gives the origin of the word, naturally, as typically Cajun, a blend of cultures uniquely N'Orleans:

American French, from American Spanish la ñapa, the lagniappe, from la + ñapa, yapa, from Quechua yapa, something added. First Known Use: 1844

I felt the new music commission I've been writing all year would be complete at 18 individual pieces, and it was. 18 is a number that I've always liked, for reasons I can't always articulate. (It turns out it contains some significance to Jewish custom, and mystical interpretation. Who knew I was a Jewish mystic after all? *shrug*) And I still had a small pile of unused lyrics already written or half-written, a few stories left over from the telling, and some other ideas.

One idea was a short, sensual, somewhat erotic poem I'd written during the project, a poem of my own, from the perspective of art and memory. During the week after I had completed the commission, this poem spoke up that it wanted to be set to music after all. So I did that, and the commission now contains 18-plus-1 compositions, 18-plus-1 songs in various styles and voices.


I draw runes on your skin
a labyrinth of circles
over your heart

I draw my name on your breast
an arrow pointing down
from navel to root of sex

I draw chevrons on your arms
sentinel of my self
warrior guarding my soul

I draw your name on my breast
and as we press ourselves together
ink runs from skin to skin
as we imprint ourselves on each other
ink brothers, blood brothers, one

naked self to naked soul
naked soul to naked skin
writing our names
on each others’ arms
blood brothers, ink brothers, one

my only loving brother
we are one

I wrote this song for two tenor voices, with piano. The music follows the arc of the poem—which by the way was originally written as a poem, rather than a pure song lyric—from two separate and different selves merging, in the end, into one. I had some fun with the musical setting.

In 1985-86 I lived in Surakarta, Central Java, Indonesia, on a Fulbright grant to study gamelan music. As I'm sure most other Fulbright alumni would agree, being on a Fulbright can be a life-changing experience, in which you learn a lot more than you originally set out to study. I received my grant as a composer rather than a scholar, and so I felt free to absorb as much music and art as possible during my year in Indonesia. One of the regional musics I became very involved with was West Javanese, or Sundanese, music; Sunda being the western third of the island of Java, with a somewhat distinctive culture and artistic expression.

In Sundanese music, there are three main tuning systems. (A tuning system in Indonesian music is not like a Western scale, and even less like a musical key. It contains fixed tones with more or less fixed intervals, but between different sets of instruments there can be variation in pitch and relative interval, within the recognized standards.) All of these are pentatonic in nature, meaning five notes per octave. One of the aspects of Sundanese music is that the scales can interlock, sharing one or two notes in common, while other intervals within the tuning system are very different.

This use of interlocking scale systems can be used to great dramatic effect. You are going along in one tuning system, when at a pivotal point, the singer will go off in a completely different tuning system, which will share a note or two with the main tuning, then return to the main tuning at another pivotal point in the music. This can create a powerful sense of tension-and-release, of stress-and-resolution.

I have been strongly influenced by this practice of departure and resolution as a composer, and also as an improvising jazz musician. I use the principle of leaving the home scale to go off in another direction, then return, both as a composer and player. This might sound dissonant to the Western ear, but that's okay: the dissonance is resolved into consonance when the scale-patterns reconverge at a point of release.

I wrote this song using these ideas from music theory that I learned from my studies of world music, especially Sunda. Each of the two voices has a completely different tuning system, which they never break away from, although there are notes in common. The piano part follows the lead of each voice when accompanying them alone, then combines elements when the voices sing together.

The first voice uses the notes G, Ab, C, Db, Eb, G, in an emulation of the minor pentatonic Sundanese tuning called degung. The second voice uses the notes Db, Eb, F, Ab, Bb, Db, in an emulation of the major pentatonic Sundanese tuning used in gamelan salendro (which is roughly the same as the Central Javanese gamelan tuning slendro.)

(Note that while in Western music it's conventional to sing a scale ascending, in Sunda, they sing a scale descending. I'm using the Western convention here, but it's worth mentioning the other. Note also that Sundanese exact pitches do not correspond to Western equal temperament, so what I've done is create scales that emulate the Sundanese scales, while using Western instruments and voices. You shouldn't take these are precise transcriptions or imitations; they're not.)

Note that there are three notes in common between the two tuning systems: Db, Eb, Ab. These are the only notes the two voices have in common. Otherwise they exist in their own musical universes.

I did this to paint with the music, as it were, the same emotional narrative arc that is in the poem: two individuals becoming one. So the voices alternate at first, each in their own tuning system. The piano follows the voice's lead, mostly, but is free to add harmonies and chords that fill out the music. By the end of the song, the two voices have begun to sing contrapuntally with each other, and at last merged into a unison on the same note. This is also reflected in the piano part, which resolves its own musical phrases by circling around the keys of Db major and Ab major—but there is no tonal sense of dominant-tonic, as the chords don't have to move in the stereotypical ways, but rather, follow the melodies in their discrete tunings.

This was a lot of fun for me to write, even though most listeners will never hear any of this. I suppose one must have the unique background of being a Western composer who has studied world musics, to get all the references. But the average listener will I hope be able to hear the emotional arc of two becoming one, and the tension-and-release that exists within the music, even though it's not done following the usual clichés of tonal music. I don't mind if hardly anyone "gets it," to be honest, because this was a bit of fun for myself. If all a listener gets is the tension-and-release and the story of two lovers merging, then I am well satisfied.

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Anonymous Swanee said...

I decided earlier this year that "lagniappe" is my favorite word--I love how it sounds as much as what it means. And it's VERY much in the spirit of New Orleans joie de vivre and generosity.

6:48 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I'm all for joie de vivre and generosity, and for that matter, I'm all for N'Orleans.

12:18 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home