Ritual no. 2 (and the Angels Continued)

In lieu of “program notes” I present the following text from the address that I gave for the premiere of this work. The premiere took place during the April 25, 2021 Music and Message Concert in Syracuse University’s Hendricks Chapel. The video currently hosted here is the premiere version from that event.

“Walking in from the warm, wet late August air and trodding up the stairs to the back balcony, I eagerly enter the first University Singers rehearsal of the Fall 2020 semester. All of us are masked, and consecutive singers are no less than 18-feet apart. One can nearly hear the voiceless thoughts bouncing from brain to brain: “I can’t hear anyone else.” “I can’t wait until we never have to do this again.” “This will never work.” Truly, I think these things too, but at the same time it occurs to me that this is in fact a marvelous opportunity. You see, none of the pieces we were performing were intended to use space in the way that the pandemic necessitated. One can understand, then, my desire to seize this opportunity and write a piece that uses space as an intentional, musical device.

Spatial composition has a long history, going back to the poly-choral works of composers like Giovanni Gabrieli during the Renaissance. It was during the twentieth century, however, that spatial composition became a unique genre. The piece that most influenced my thinking in Ritual no. 2 was Iannis Xenakis’s Terretektorh, an orchestral work in which the audience is seated within the ensemble. The performers form spiral patterns around the audience, and these spirals are used in part to create a sort of “acoustic-panning” effect in various velocities. I took this idea of mixing the audience and ensemble, though it is not entirely obvious. Unfortunately, the pandemic forbids us from holding a live-performance of the piece. When watching the piece you will see singers spaced widely apart. Try to imagine yourself and your companions mixed in among them in the pews, witnessing the piece unfold.

The concept of the piece was informed by its predecessor, Ritual no. 1: Ascension of the Primes. Ritual no. 1 is quite different in many respects: it is for my own solo voice with audio/visual accompaniment from a computer. It is in 5 movements, each with an increasingly complex tuning system. At about 45 minutes in length, it is nearly twice as long as Ritual no. 2. Nevertheless, there are a couple of key elements that marry the two pieces together. For one they are both audio/visual works. The ritualistic nature of Ritual no. 2, however, is heightened by the implication that, were this a live performance, the ensemble and audience would be intermixed, facing the stage, watching the visual elements unfold together, similar to a religious service.

Perhaps more importantly, they both make use of just-intonation as a symbol for the pure, the divine and the angelic. You may be wondering: what (the hell) does that mean? To put it as simply as possible, pitches in just-intonation are related to one another by whole-number ratios relative to the overtone-series of a given fundamental. The overtone series is a theoretically infinite series of pitches that resonate in nearly any sounding body be it a human voice, a violin or a synthesizer. The first two notes of the series form an interval called the octave (sing). Let’s pretend that the lower note has a frequency of 100 Hz. We know that the octave occurs between the second note of the series and the first note of the series. Therefore, the ratio for the octave is 2:1. To find the frequency for the octave we multiply 100 by two and then divide by 1. Thus, the frequency of the higher octave is 200 Hz. This is a very simple relationship, but one can imagine the interest in such a system with some of the more complex ratios in the piece like 13:8 or 16:15, even 224:75.

Our discussion of tuning is an ideal segue into an overview of the basic underlying aesthetic of Ritual no. 2: an aesthetic of dialectics. Dialectic is here meant in the Hegelian sense, the so-called thesis, antithesis synthesis relationship. With respect to tuning there is a dialectic relationship between the just-intonation tuning used by the choir and the twelve-tone equal temperament tuning used by the mallet percussion instruments. The mallet players have 12 notes-per-octave, just like a piano, but the choir sings with a scale that has 33 notes per-octave, nearly three times as many! There is a resulting antagonism between these two tuning systems, which would not ordinarily co-exist. That they are directly juxtaposed in Ritual no. 2 means that the piece is not fully in one tuning or the other, but instead inhabits a space somewhere between the two. Which system do you prefer hearing?

Another dialectic relationship exists between strictly composed materials using serial techniques and improvisatory materials. The third structure of the piece, heavily influenced by Pauline Oliveros’s Sound Patterns, is a good example. The structure begins with fully notated material, but about 2/3 of the way through the notated material is interpolated with chance-based materials. That is, one section of the chorus no longer has notated material, and instead begins to perform various sounds at random intervals of their own choosing. This aleatoric, chance based material gradually conquers the notated material, so that at the end of the structure the entire chorus is improvising according to the parameters I have defined. While listening, ask yourself: is what I am hearing improvised or composed? Could it be both?

The most complex dialectic relationship in the piece is one book-ended by the extremes of individual and collective, self and other. The synthesis of these extremes is described in the piece with a quote from José Martí’s essay Our America. It reads, “The soul, equal and eternal, emanates from bodies that are diverse in form and color.” The choir is the musical realization of this. Each singer is given only one pitch for the entire duration of the piece. Because the piece uses a specially constructed 33-tone tuning, each singer’s pitch is provided by an individualized drone track. In this sense they are cut-off from the rest of the ensemble. There are times where the music is quite austere, and emphasizes this rugged individualism. At other times, however, the choir acts as a collective unit to produce just-intonation harmonies. If you like, the harmonies are the singular “soul” while the individual singers and pitches are the “diverse forms and colors.” This is a musical analog to a fundamental issue of human society – individualism vs. collectivism. I propose that we must not firmly pick a side, that we must find a proper balance between them, that we must foster a healthy collectivism rooted in a shared affirmation of all people as whole and unique individuals.

I shall close with the beautiful 100th verse from the Dhammapada that reads, “Better than a thousand useless words is one useful word, hearing which one attains peace.” While I would certainly find another thousand words quite useful, it is this sentiment that guided my writing of Ritual no. 2. In the end it is not about dazzling the listener, it is about helping them, and in fact myself find, peace.”

Performers

Mallet Percussionists:

Glockenspiel – Jianna Curcio

Xylophone – David Rauscher

Vibraphone – Carolin Manna

Marimba – Sarah Chase

  • A warm thank you to Professor Michael Bull for his guidance in incorporating the mallet instruments.

Chorus – Syracuse University Singers: (Number denotes part assigned)

  1. Ben O’Connell
  2. Emery Schramm
  3. Ronnie Ditchek
  4. Dr. Wendy Moy
  5. Dr. John Warren (Director of University Singers)
  6. Tara Sandlin
  7. John Bentley
  8. John Moses
  9. Jada Crawford
  10. Jenn Jordan
  11. Sarah Gross
  12. Riley McCurdy
  13. Joel Touranjoe
  14. Maddy McDermott
  15. Claire Nolan
  16. Crystal Lee
  17. Lingyin Cao
  18. Matt Clemens
  19. Rylan Mortenson
  20. Nate Murphy
  21. Anita Fraiser
  22. Hyunjung Byun
  23. Maddy Caruso
  24. Grace Krichbaum
  25. Amanda Gabriel
  26. Brandon Ferrante
  27. Benji Wittman
  28. Nick Peta
  29. Natalie Pereira
  30. Christian Schmidt
  31. Micayla MacDougall
  32. Dr. Peppie Calvar
  33. Henri Youmans
  34. Mark Olesh

Producers

Head Sound Recording Engineer: Kevin Muldoon

Sound Engineering Assistants: Benji Wittman, Rylan Mortenson, Ross Chua, Michael Fedczuk, Kyle Beirne

Videographer: Brian Simons

Hendricks Chapel Liasion: Alex Snow

The final audio/video product was produced by Kevin Swenson.

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