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From the ground up – The chaconne

O/Modernt Chamber Orchestra, Hugo Ticciati (conductor)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: June 2019
Total duration: 55 minutes 24 seconds

Originating as a sexy dance in South America, the ‘chacona’ crossed the Atlantic to Spain where it was banned from theatres for being ‘lascivious’, ‘dishonest’ and ‘offensive to pious ears’. This new album traces the dance's allure through the ages before finally allowing Purcell’s ground bass masterworks to furnish a harmonic groove for Shakespearean recitation and rapped commentary.


‘Hugo Ticciati clearly delights in the elusive … so put on the kettle, give this disc a spin, and maybe in under an hour you'll also be booking flights to Kathmandu: whatever Ticciati's drinking, I want some too’ (Gramophone)
Imported into Spain from Latin America in the sixteenth century, the chaconne burst onto the scene as an exuberant popular dance—sexy and subversive in equal measure. The word ‘chacona’ first appeared in Spanish literature in 1599, in a short farce or entremés, written for the marriage of Philip III of Spain and Margaret of Austria, where the Chacona del platillo (‘Chaconne of the serving dish’) is introduced by a gang of thieves in order to trick a South American tribal chief into handing over his silver. As implied here, and as several early examples attest, the energy of the chaconne captured a mood of festive misrule, portraying a Saturnalian world turned upside down in which the prevailing social order could be temporarily suspended.

But, lavish banquets may cause tender stomachs to falter, and wild parties all too often end in a hangover. The Saturnalia, the mother of all such feasts, including Christmas, was originally a Roman celebration of the god Saturn in his role as the patron deity of seeds and sowing. Yet, Saturn is perhaps more familiar as the planetary influence that blights human temperaments with a cold and sluggish gloom, encapsulated in the word ‘saturnine’. A vital link is thus forged between riotous festivity and one of the most important motifs, not only in the Renaissance, but in the whole of western artistic culture: melancholy. The combination is perfectly and appropriately personified in Don Quixote, the Knight of the Doleful Countenance (actually a reference to the fact that the hapless idealist has had his teeth knocked out) and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, the lord of misrule.

The extraordinary depth and flexibility of the chaconne derives from its evolution into a form capable of giving voice to both aspects of this duality: the festive and the melancholic. In each case the guiding impetus is self-knowledge. The world is temporarily turned upside down so that pent-up energies can be expressed and satiated before the normal order of things is re-established with refreshed assurance. Similarly, whether we laugh or weep in its presence, the artistic portrayal of the painful, but also creative and strangely pleasurable, state of melancholy provides a kind of catharsis. That, at any rate, is the theory. In practice, artistic forms can sustain and subvert, propagate and purge, delight and disturb, without unequivocally offering support to any particular point of view or credo.

A decisive move in the history of the form was made in Italy by Frescobaldi in the 1637 edition of his Primo libro di toccate, where he ushered in the high art of treating the chaconne, now essentially separated from its terpsichorean roots, as an ostinato—a repeating ground—in instrumental music. In this guise the chaconne was closely associated with the passacaglia (from the Spanish pasar ‘to walk’ and calle ‘street’)—originally Spanish street music, played on guitars, that found a home in the theatre, where its repeating chord sequences provided a framework for extemporised walk-on music. Whereas the major-key chaconne was initially the laughing counterpart of the minor-key passacaglia, Frescobaldi produced passacaglia–chaconne pairs: alternating pieces in which the distinctions between the two forms became increasingly blurred, and the chaconne was freely interpreted in the minor mode. By the time the fashion was established in England the words chaconne, passacaglia and ground (or ground bass) could be used more or less as equivalents, and all were associated with the descending four-note sequence in a minor key (with or without added chromatic embellishment) that is so familiar from the genre of the lament.

The mournful character of the tradition finds expression in Yo soy la locura (‘I am the madness’), with words by an anonymous (presumably early seventeenth-century) Spanish poet. These were set by Henri de Bailly (d1637), a French composer, lutenist and singer, who worked first for Henri IV (until 1610 when the king was assassinated) and subsequently for Louis XIII, under whom De Bailly was closely involved with the elaborate court entertainments known as ballets de cour. The text of Yo soy la locura has loose affinities with the multivalent sufferings of a host of paradigmatic figures, including Don Quixote, Hamlet (Quixote’s exact contemporary) and Purcell’s Dido, who exemplify one of the great paradoxes of western art—pleasurable melancholy, in which the representation of a character’s anguish becomes a source of aesthetic enjoyment. This provides the context for Yo soy la locura, where the personified ‘madness’, or melancholy, of the song’s title celebrates its own capacity to fill the world with ‘pleasure and sweetness’.

In a similar vein is Vuestros ojos tienen d’amor no sé qué (‘Your eyes contain I know not what of love’). Another anonymous song from Spain, Vuestros ojos was included by Robert Dowland in his Musical Banquet of 1610, a compendium of ‘delicious airs, collected out of the best authors in English, French, Spanish and Italian’, and it is the rhythmic epitome of fashionable melancholy. The je ne sais quoi of love, mentioned in the title, is carried in the beloved’s eyes, which ‘freeze’, ‘rob’, ‘wound’ and even ‘kill’ the watchful lover, producing a paradox of pleasurable persecution: ‘If you look at me, / I blame you.’

Domenico Pellegrini, who died sometime after 1682, provides a chaconne from his 1650 collection Armoniosi concerti sopra la chitarra spagnuola, published in his native city of Bologna. As Pellegrini’s title might suggest, his Chiaccona in parte variate alla vera spagnuola revisits the form’s festive origins in a buoyant composition that exploits the triple-time dancing rhythms with which the chaconne was associated from the outset. The upbeat mood of the piece, along with the pointed assertion that it is in the ‘true Spanish style’, combined with the fact that Pellegrini was himself a guitarist, raises the interesting question of whether the Chiaccona in parte variate was created in conscious opposition to the modernising trends, exemplified by Frescobaldi, that would ultimately lead from wild exuberance to meditative profundity. Unfortunately, it’s currently an impossible question to answer as almost nothing is known about Pelligrini beyond his few surviving works.

Alessandro Piccinini (1566-c1638), a Bolognese lutenist, composer and writer on music, claimed to have invented the archlute—a lute with an extended neck—in the 1590s. The claim was made in the preface to the first of his two published volumes of music, Intavolatura di liuto, et di chitarrone, libro primo (Bologna, 1623), which includes the Ciaccona in partite variate. Made up of a tuneful bass line that accompanies a set of attractive variations, this is an animated work that refines the chaconne’s festive character to create a genial and spirited dance, full of teasing energy, that was presumably performed at aristocratic assemblies in Ferrara and Bologna, where Piccinini was employed.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s six sonatas and partitas for solo violin (BWV1001-1006) were completed while Bach was employed as Kapellmeister at the court of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, a post he occupied from 1717 to 1723. The sonatas and partitas, which date from the first half of the composer’s time in Cöthen, were intended for the secular courtly milieu presided over by Prince Leopold—a passionate lover of music, who maintained a sizeable court orchestra, took some lessons in composition from Johann David Heinichen, and played the violin, viola da gamba and harpsichord. The partitas are dance suites, made fashionable by the French elite, that were popularised in highborn German circles by royals and nobles who looked to France as the model for their courtly practices.

Bach, of course, never visited France, but that didn’t hinder him from developing a close acquaintance with the latest French styles, which were imported to Germany in print. Accordingly, at multiple removes from their popular generic origins, the dances that make up Bach’s suites utterly transform the bodily movements from which they ultimately derive to create profound abstract patterns—spiritual and intellectual choreographies, so to speak. The epoch-making ‘Ciaccona’ from Partita No 2 in D minor for solo violin, which is the suite’s fifth and final movement, comprises sixty-four variations that explore every nuance of the instrument’s capabilities while carving out an immensely compelling emotional trajectory, later described by Johannes Brahms as ‘a whole world of the deepest thoughts and the most powerful feelings’. This is the ne plus ultra of meditative intensity, yet one need look no further than the extreme self-scrutiny engaged in by Hamlet to see that it shares a common heritage with other facets of the rich culture of melancholy. As such, though Bach’s tremendous work is about as far removed from the chaconne’s boisterous roots as can be imagined, it is nonetheless a supreme contribution to the tradition.

Dušan Bogdanović’s Chaconne, the fourth movement of his five-part Suite breve (2017), takes Bach’s transfigured dance from the Partita No 2 in D minor out into the world and returns it—fortified and renewed—to its origins. In his music more generally, Bogdanović masterfully combines diverse influences from many times and places into what he calls ‘new syntheses’ that can stand alone. Accordingly, in his ‘Chaconne’, baroque progressions are infused with lyrical harmonies that evoke the delicate hues of Spain and Latin America in a now familiar mood of sweet sadness. The composer describes the piece in the following words:

An integral part of Suite breve, which was composed as a homage to Bach, my chaconne respects the usual formal blueprint: it is built on a harmonic sequence which serves as the cornerstone for the whole cycle. In contrast to Bach’s famous, magnificent chaconne, my melancholy little chaconne is very modest in its ambition and restrained in its intentions. The piece follows a natural development through a series of quasi-improvised variations ending in a virtuoso coda.

As in any physical dance, the essence of Johannes Marmén’s Inside one breath is contained in the bodily presence of the participants. In this case the precise form of any particular iteration of the piece foregrounds the characteristics of the players. This means, first and foremost, their physical traits—how deeply each performer breathes, the shape of their hands, as well as how each of them moves their hands and fingers, including any so-called imperfections in their movements; and secondly, the thought processes intrinsic to the performance—the decisions each performer takes, along with their personal expressive intentions. Inside one breath thus incorporates tactile sounds and improvisatory elements; these include a flat drum skin stroked with the hand to make continuously changing sounds, free melodic improvisations on the violin and guitar, and the tiny variations produced by glissandi and vibrato, which draw attention to the vanishingly thin dividing line between those sounds.

The length and shape of Inside one breath is also determined by the performers’ subjective sense of the passing of time, as silence and rest markers require them to rely on their individual perceptions and experience. The aim is to undermine the listener’s awareness of temporal progression. Instead, the piece should appear, as it were, to come into being in an instant. To quote Marmén, Inside one breath is not a ‘journey’, but an ‘event’, which the composer likens to the planar fields of a Mondrian painting, while the steplike structure, accentuated in the guitar part, invokes the four-note sequence that earlier composers routinely laid down as a ground and thus echoes the ‘gravitational pull’ of a chaconne.

Henry Purcell’s Chacony in G minor takes us to the London theatres that reopened after the return of Charles II to England in 1660. Restoration theatre music was ‘incidental’: auxiliary to the actual play, music was performed before the main event began and during the interval. By and large, a suite of theatre music comprised eight pieces—an overture and a sequence of dances—that were very often subsequently used as concert works. As the Purcell scholar Peter Holman explains, much Restoration theatre music only survives in concert versions, and it is therefore often problematic to decide which music was written for which play. This is certainly the case with Purcell’s Chacony in G minor, which was probably composed around 1680—that is, while Purcell was employed by Charles, and nearly a decade before he turned his attention almost exclusively to the theatre, after the accession of William III (who notoriously disliked music) and Queen Mary in 1689.

Despite being in a minor key, the Chacony was probably written as a lively dance. Charles had picked up the French habit of listening to music while standing and tapping his foot, and he emphatically preferred music that gratified his partiality. The piece is based on a descending tetrachord—four consecutive notes of a minor scale, leading from tonic to dominant—which became associated with the lament, a decisive instance being Dido’s lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689). As was usual in England, in the case of the Chacony, the chaconne of the title is used indeterminately, and the word might equally suggest a passacaglia or simply a ground.

Throughout their long history the chaconne and passacaglia have been used as the bases for sets of variations, with varied and repeating grounds being treated as starting points for musical flights of fancy. In a closely related manner, the patterned bass lines characteristic of the two forms have provided the launchpad for musical improvisations. This was true from the very beginning. For example, the passacaglia made the transition from street to theatre as a flexible repeating pattern that underpinned vamped accompaniments. These could be varied in length, as required, while scenes and costumes were changed, and actors made their way to the stage. The convention was more formalised in mid-seventeenth-century England, where the practice of extemporising variations over a ground bass was known as ‘division’—a word that expressively captures the idea of ‘splitting’ the notes of a melody to uncover new musical directions. From the ground up explores this tradition in a spirit of artistic discovery, interspersing the scored tracks on the album with improvisations in which the musicians respond spontaneously to the written pieces and, of course, to each other.

Harmonic singing (also known as overtone or throat singing) is a vocal technique that exploits the natural qualities of the human voice, which, like all sounds, is made up of a fundamental frequency (the primary note) and a series of higher frequency harmonics or overtones. Overtone singers produce two (or sometimes three) tones simultaneously, in the form of a continuous drone accompanied by flutey melodic overlays. It’s a style of music that is highly prized among the nomadic herders of southern Siberia and western Mongolia, and in recent decades it has been brought to the attention of appreciative audiences further afield, particularly in Europe and America. The first significant and widely influential European composition to employ the technique was Karlheinz Stockhausen’s groundbreaking Stimmung, for six voices, premiered in 1968.

Based purely on natural bodily vibrations, overtone singing seems at once both elemental and magical. The Tuvan people of south Siberia traditionally associated it with the animistic belief that natural phenomena have inherent spiritual qualities that find expression in topographical shapes, locations and sounds. Shifting winds, mountainous echoes, thundering waterfalls, gurgling streams, birdsong and animal calls might all be conceived of as spiritual manifestations of the living earth, and these are some of the key sounds—all rich in harmonics—that apparently inspired the first human overtone singers. In the late 1990s Gareth Lubbe had the good fortune to study overtone singing in the Republic of Tuva (or Tyva), high in the Altai Mountains. It was, he says, ‘a positively life-changing experience’ that required him to listen to his own voice more deeply than he had ever done previously. He compares the natural sounds made by overtone singers with the spectrum of visible light: ‘Just as a prism splits white light into fantastic colours, so our bodies split sound into multiple layers of frequencies. It’s these vibrations that change the way we listen, feel and resonate with each other.’

A selection of Purcell remixes showcase the creative philosophy of O/Modernt by interweaving diverse musical styles, texts and sources of inspiration to fashion one-off syntheses that capture the electric charge of live performance in laid-down tracks. A chief component of the remixes is the interpolation of some key Shakespeare texts. Shakespeare, as Ben Jonson memorably wrote, was ‘not of an age but for all time’. Restoration dramatists took the idea to an extreme in outrageous redactions of the plays, notably Nahum Tate’s History of King Lear (1681), where ‘truth and virtue triumph’ when Lear is finally restored to his throne and Cordelia marries Edgar. From the ground up returns the compliment. Remixing Purcell for our own times, O/Modernt deploys texts from Shakespeare, recited by Sam West, as a bridge to Baba Israel’s rapped reflections on themes of love, war, art and politics, in which hot contemporary topics—Brexit and the Trump presidency, for example—are very much on the agenda.

As with the other remixes on the album, Purcell’s Ground in D minor is interpreted using a modernised palette of instrumental colour, including piano, electric bass and a drum kit. Etched on the repeating musical figure is Sam West’s reading of Sonnet 130 (‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’), followed by Baba Israel’s improvised musings on the inability of poetic language to capture love’s intensity: ‘When I look in my lady’s eyes, I am surprised I have no divine lines to intertwine with rhymes …’ The librettist of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was, of course, none other than Nahum Tate, and O/Modernt’s version of Dido’s Lament adroitly replaces the vocal line of the tragic heroine’s aria with an extract from Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece: ‘Mis-shapen Time, copesmate of ugly Night …’ (ll. 925-66). The melancholy ground then propagates a kind of optimism as Baba Israel contemplates ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’—a funeral song presaging rebirth—from Cymbeline.

The first of two Grounds in C minor accompanies Sam West’s reading of ‘Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises …’, Caliban’s speech from Act 3, Scene 2 of The Tempest; this is succeeded by Baba Israel’s rap commentary: ‘In a world filled with madness …’ Then, as the music shifts to the second ground, the spotlight is turned on Sonnet 8 (‘Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?’), which urges Shakespeare’s beloved young man to ape the unity in diversity exemplified in musical harmony by getting married—thus fulfilling his individual potential in concert with a significant other. This engenders a burst of explosive energy in Baba Israel’s celebration of the uplifting, sometimes sexual, power of music: ‘Lifting, shifting, rising, reaching, seeking when I’m finding, when I’m leaving with this joy that music’s sacred …’

Finally, the album opens with a reading from Shakespeare that pays oblique homage to Purcell’s 'Sound the trumpet', from his Come, ye sons of art, the last of the six birthday odes that Purcell wrote for Queen Mary before her untimely death on 28 December 1694, sadly followed eleven months later by Purcell himself. First performed in April 1694 in the newly remodelled Kensington Palace, Purcell’s 'Sound the trumpet' seemingly indulges William III’s entrenched preference for military instruments. With outstanding panache, however, Purcell scored the work for two countertenors and continuo but no trumpets. Instead, he allows the singers to show off their vocal pyrotechnics by imitating the instrument’s sound. This was doubtless conceived as a brilliant courtly joke, but was it also Purcell’s way of trying to entice the king to open his ears and discover new musical possibilities?

One of the most remarkable musical renewals of all time featured the trumpets of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun—the subject of the fascinating essay by Irving Finkel that follows. But the question raised by Purcell’s 'Sound the trumpet' takes us to the heart of O/Modernt’s artistic purpose, pithily expressed in an axiom borrowed from the great musical innovator John Cage: ‘Invent the past; revise the future.’ The impassioned belief in the transformative potential of music, showcased on From the ground up, finds a locus classicus in Sam West’s reading of the speech from Act 4, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice, in which Lorenzo extols the power of music, and trumpets in particular, to soothe a ‘wild and wanton herd’:

If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turn’d to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music.

Paul Williamson © 2019

In 2011 I was asked by the late Kjerstin Dellert to start a festival at Confidencen, Ulriksdal Palace Theatre, the oldest rococo theatre in Sweden. Situated in the heart of Sweden’s first National City Park, amidst idyllic gardens, rare flora and fauna, adjacent to the royal palace, the beautiful historic structure invites visitors to breathe the air of a bygone era. And yet, every breath we take inescapably and all too often unconsciously situates us in the immediacy of our present lives. Cultivating an awareness of the way past and present intertwine, I discerned the power of intuition, and how that simple mode of perception might lead performers and audiences alike to surrender themselves to present immediacy.

This was the impulse that gave birth to O/Modernt, a Swedish term that means ‘Un/Modern’. The concept embodied in O/Modernt encourages the ceaseless exploration of relationships between older works and the artistic and intellectual creations of modern culture. The friction created in such encounters has the capacity to breathe new life into the works of the past, not as manifestations of bygone eras but as expressions of the present. This founding principle is beautifully encapsulated in a phrase borrowed from John Cage that serves as O/Modernt’s motto: ‘the past must be invented; the future must be revised.’

Each year I choose a single composer, closely contemporary with the period when the magical theatre first rose to life, to be the guiding spirit of the festival; the composer also precipitates a related theme. Thus, the 2018 edition of the festival was inspired by the muse of Henry Purcell, and his serpentine ground basses provided the creative spark for a weeklong voyage through music, art and literature—'Purcell: From the ground up'.

In the present album, From the ground up – The chaconne, Purcell recedes a little into the background, while the history of the chaconne comes to the fore. Coupled with the exploration of variations on the chaconne theme is the idea that our breath—the very action of breathing—is the ground of our being, and that, as in the respiratory disciplines practised in many religions, a focus on the breath facilitates an awareness of the present. I believe this awareness can help us to experience the immediacy that lies at the heart of music’s temporal unfolding, thereby forging instinctual bonds between musical works that may be widely separated in space and time. These are the themes and processes that this album explores.

The physicality of breathing is contemplated in a new work by Johannes Marmén, as well as in a sequence of improvisations with forays into harmonic singing. Just as we breathe unconsciously, so our speech, song and movements automatically produce harmonic spectra. Indeed, we are surrounded by a plethora of harmonic fields, and in the same way as we usually pay little or no attention to the process of breathing, so, for the most part, we remain deaf to the rich array of harmonics that make up our sound worlds. From the ground up aspires to awaken a new sensitivity to the symphony of harmonics in which we have our being. The physicality of breath, along with the production of harmonies and the ability of sounds from an ancient world to transcend time, is examined from another perspective in Irving Finkel’s ruminations on the trumpets found in Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb, played live on the radio in 1939 after an interval of more than three thousand years.

Finally, in order to stress the sovereign role accorded to breath in this album, Heidegger’s aphoristic ground means being—being means ground (quoted on the inside cover) might be rephrased to include breathing as an indispensable third term: ground means breath means being—breath is the ground of our being.

Hugo Ticciati © 2019

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