Mediaeval religion held to a belief in the perfect essence of the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and so it followed that notated music in triple time was announced by the symbol of perfection for its time signature: a circle. Music in duple time shattered that notion of perfection and was represented by a shattered circle, looking rather misleadingly like the letter ‘C’ (how many tutors still teach their charges that this stands for Common Time…?).
The circle is no longer used in modern staff notation, but the notion of circles in music, how they can be represented in the laying out of a composition, continues to engage composers. Rondo form, for example, in which the music digresses but constantly comes back to where it started, continues to attract. This week’s blog homes in on a selection of works that use, shall we say, ‘circular’ musical ideas.
Anthony Girard (b. 1959) wrote a set of 24 preludes for piano which explore an inner journey, and which he titled Le cercle de la vie (The Circle of Life) (8.572993). The 2 sets of 12 preludes each depict an inner journey passing through different and opposing states of mind. If the sets were laid out on a circle, the North and South poles in the first set would be Joy (Prelude 1) and Sorrow (Prelude 7), with east and west representing Anxiety (Prelude 4) and Tranquillity (Prelude 10). Here you can listen to the corresponding stages in the second set:
Margaret Brouwer (b. 1940) wrote her 3-movement concerto Aurolucent Circles (8.559250) for the distinguished percussionist, Evelyn Glennie. She manufactured the word aurolucent by blending the idea of the lucent percussion sounds she uses in the work with the way sounds arc around the physical performance space, reminiscent of the aurora borealis. You can hear this arcing effect in sections of the central movement. Here’s an excerpt.
Round Time (8.572981) by Luis Tinoco (b. 1969) stands on points around the circle, looking inwards towards the centre point. The composer’s process of connecting the work’s starkly contrasting atmospheres is explained as follows:
Each of these seems to evolve in its own way and is linked to the others in the same way as the different shots in a TV control room are connected: several cameras film the same programme but from different angles, and the producer moves from shot to shot to bring a particular rhythm to the continuous flow of images. Here the composer chooses from a number of different layers of sound, producing a kaleidoscopic effect of ambiances that seem to come and go in a circular manner.
Christopher Rouse’s (b. 1949) intriguingly titled Wolf Rounds (8.572439) presents ‘circular’, or repetitive ideas that repeat over and over until metamorphosing to a new idea, which is then similarly repeated until becoming yet another. The episodes are of different lengths, so their repeated overlaps produce a constantly changing sonic landscape. But what about the Wolf in the title? The composer explains:
“My first impulse was to entitle the work Loops as it seemed to me that this was an accurate description of the processes involved in composing the piece. However, this title seemed a bit prosaic. The word ‘loops’, though, led me to think of the Latin word lupus, which means ‘wolf’. I was put in mind of the way in which wolves circle their prey, and these predatory rounds of course reminded me of the circular nature of my musical presentation. Thus the final title: Wolf Rounds.”
It’s a short hop from a circle to a circus, so we’ll end with a couple of contrasting pieces that were written with the circular entertainment zone in mind.
The first is John Corigliano’s (b. 1938) Symphony No. 3 (8.559601), subtitled Circus Maximus, ancient Rome’s notorious setting for entertaining masses in the round with displays that were by turn spectacular and brutal. What goes around comes around. The composer explains the ancient and modern relationship in his symphony:
“The parallels between the high decadence of Rome and our present time are obvious. Entertainment dominates our culture, and ever-more-extreme ‘reality’ shows dominate our entertainment. Many of us have become as bemused by the violence and humiliation that flood the 500-plus channels of our television screens as those mobs of imperial Rome who considered the devouring of human beings by starving lions just another Sunday show. The shape of Circus Maximus was built both to embody and comment on this massive and glamorous barbarity.”
Here’s the opening of the sixth section, itself headed Circus Maximus.
To bow out today, we turn to Stravinsky and to the last piece he wrote for piano. It was commissioned, improbably, by the Barnum and Bailey circus troupe, as music to accompany a ballet of young elephants: his Circus Polka (8.570377). The legendary choreographer George Balanchine approached Stravinsky with the commission. Apparently, the conversation went something like this:
“I wondered if you’d like to do a little ballet with me, a polka perhaps?”
“For some elephants.”
“All right… If they are very young elephants, I will do it.”.