Monthly Archives: November 2019

Festa della Pizzica

Tone poem for large orchestra
~11 min
3.2.2.2 — 4.3.3.1 — timp+4 — str
Perusal score on Issuu

This piece was composed in early 2019 and is based on reminiscences of a trip to Puglia in 2017. It is my contribution to the great line of “Italian Voyage” pieces that include Mendelssohn’s Italian symphony, Berlioz’s Roman Carnival overture, Bizet’s Roma, and Strauss’s Aus Italien.

The pizzica of the title refers to a dance common to the region, a variant of the Neapolitan tarantella. Local folklore offers the same origin for both: a tarantula has “pinched” (“pizzicato“) the dancer on the ankle, who must then engage in a frenzied, whirling dance to rid themself of the poison.

Throughout the summer, bands of pizzica musicians travel from village to village to perform for these festivals which last well into the night. The tradition unites old and young alike, and it’s not uncommon to see young women dancing with their grandfathers, who otherwise might not be able to get up from their chairs.

I wrote this piece for my friend Marcello Cormio, whom I first met in 2008 when we were both conducting grad students at Indiana University. We’ve maintained a close friendship since then and finally in the summer of 2017, I took him up on his offer to visit his home town of Trani in the south of Italy.

Marcello sipping a beer at the Festa della Pizzica in 2017

In writing the piece, I was influenced not only by the music I heard at the festival, but also the people and stories that I heard while in Italy. I was also in the thrall of several other works from other media that I encountered in the years leading up to my trip, in particular the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante, Call Me By Your Name (both the novel and its adaptation) and the film Gomorrah.

The piece itself is both a dance suite and a character study. It begins with maximum chaos, with all of the themes that will appear later in the movement layered on top of one another. This gives way to a bassoon solo, an angular, bony old man, beset with illness. The dance pulls him into remembrances of his youth, and we get a flashback of him as a sprightly young man.

The next dance is a feisty episode for solo violin, a character who reflects and is repelled by the culture of violence of the region (think Lila in My Brilliant Friend.) Here, and throughout the piece, the orchestration is reminiscent of Rimsky-Korsakov.

The third character piece is one of those “Tony sees Maria” moments on the dance floor, where two characters connect and the rest of the scene is greased out. This episode nods strongly to Mendelssohn in the woodwind writing.

As you would expect, the themes of all these characters unite in the end (along with a “summer breeze” theme that appears in all of the episodes) and builds to a frenzied finale, complete with shouts from the orchestra members.

Pain and Glory

It’s impossible to see an Almodóvar film and not come away a) raptured and b) contemplating what it means to create art and to live as an artist, and Dolor y Gloria gives more fodder to the latter than any of his films for at least a decade.

Image result for dolor y gloria"

I’d heard that this was “a return to form” or a “comeback” (both impossible: Almodóvar has never lost his way.) I’d also heard it was a new direction for him, a departure from his earlier films, and here I also disagree: it is a deeper exploration of themes and techniques that have been a consistent part of his work for decades:

Mother-son relationships. The art of filmmaking. Self-medication via illicit drug use. Stories told in several temporal layers. Rural Catholic education. Young boys singing and reading. Unrealized desire. Hospitals and death. City/village life. Theatrical performances (featuring audience members crying.)

There’s also the cast, including Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, Cecilia Roth, and Augustín Almodóvar’s obligatory cameo. And certain stylistic elements that make Almodóvar Almodóvar, particularly his bold use of color and the inclusion of fine art in almost every shot. And let us not forget the unforgettable music of Alberto Iglesias.

What’s amazing is that, given the consistency of the tropes, themes, and tone palette with which he builds his films, each one crystalizes in a unique way, based on the weighting each element receives.

[A side note: I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as I’ve deepened my appreciation of the music of Herbert Howells. Just think about how many times he set the phrase, “my soul doth magnify the Lord.” He uses similar melodic gestures and harmonic structures in all his canticles, and yet, some sound ancient and ethereal, others bluesy and grounded.]

Most importantly, the film offers a beautiful answer to the question “why do we create?” Put simply, it’s for the physical and mental health of the creator.

That’s an answer that I resonate with deeply. I’ll never reap fame or fortune from writing music. I feel lucky to have a handful of friends and family who remain curious about my work, and to obtain the odd commission or sale. I think the music I write is pretty good, but I’m under no illusion that any of it is groundbreaking or life-changing.

What I do know is that when I’ve gone too long without composing, I fall into bad habits, and my body and my soul cry out to me to begin work on a new piece. (Thankfully my vice is eating too much vegan junk food rather than smoking heroin, but we all take our kicks where we can get them.)

Which means I should stop typing and start plunking out notes on the piano. But before I go, two recommendations:

  1. Peter J. Schmelz’s Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 from Oxford University Press.
  2. The film Tous les matins du monde (which I’m sure I’ve written about on this blog before) which answers the “why do we make art” question differently: to communicate with the dead.