O Ignee Spiritus (O Fiery Spirit)
In May of 2019, I gave a talk/performance at Pixar Animation Studios about nine extraordinary women composers and their music, and the first composer I introduced was Hildegard of Bingen. Here is a partial transcript of my presentation:
"Hildegard was born in Germany and was a nun, an abbess, and a polymath: a doctor, philosopher, scientist, poet, and a Christian mystic (she was famous for her visions!) - and she has one of the largest musical repertoires of ALL medieval composers, male or female!
As the 10th child of a noble family, Hildegard was given over to the church. During Hildegard’s time, nunnery’s were centers of intellectual learning run for and by nobility, so nuns (Hildegard especially!) had a huge amount of influence on politics and religion."
I went on to talk about Hildegard's rockstar-ness: politically and otherwise. For example - she would allow her nuns to perform her music while wearing glorious white shimmering garments and crowns!
One of the pieces I played was an abridged piano adaptation of Hildegard's “O Ignee Spiritus.” I thought it would be fun to sing this song in its entirety. The english translation is enough to make me weak in the knees! Here is one of my favorite lines:
Yet in your hand you always hold the sword
to cut away
the deadly apple offering
its blackened heart
You can visit the Hildegard Society's website if you would like (you will like!) to read the entire English translation and/or check out the full sheet music. A big thank you to Kathleen Mead for her assistance with the Latin pronunciation. If there are errors, they are mine - not hers!
This week, I gave a talk about composing music to the 6th graders at the Julia Morgan School for Girls. A big thank you to Phil Gorman for inviting me to speak!
Here were some of the take-aways:
You don’t need to have magical powers to create music. You don’t need expensive instruments or training. You can use your voice or whatever instruments you have on hand. If you don’t know how to read or write sheet music, you can create your own notation methods with a pencil and paper and/or you can make audio recordings of your compositions.
Start small! Give yourself one or two parameters (i.e. notes or chords or tools) to play with, and stay inside your self-imposed box until you feel ready to branch out.
Learning how to compose is like learning a new language. Set aside a little bit of time each day to practice your craft.
Don’t throw anything away if you can help it. I have always had a hard time with this one, but you never know when one of your less than perfect compositions will become the seed for a newer, better song that you will love. Hide your half-baked ideas in the bottom of a filing cabinet or on an external hard drive if you must - but try not to pitch anything.
After the talk, I had this thought:
There are plenty of people out there who think that an overabundance of “bad art made by amateurs” is going distract attention away from “good art made by experts.” I am not one them. I might argue that there is plenty of good art made by amateurs and bad art made by experts…but I am not the art police. The perceived “quality” of art is completely subjective, and I believe that art is for everybody. Very often, it is a pleasure to make art, and a pleasure to share it – just ask anybody who has watched a two-year old scribble with unabashed delight. Creating art can provide catharsis for a troubled heart, a universal language, a connection to the past, and sometimes a bridge between our hearts and minds that would not otherwise be available to us.
In closing, try not to label your art (or art made by others) as “good” or “bad.” And do not be afraid to make something new!
Chapter 2 begins with an explanation of major and minor triads, diatonic chords, chord symbol notation, and a preliminary exercise which requires students to practice writing out the tones of various chord symbols.
For ex.2, we will construct a song in three parts using two-chord progressions using major and minor triads in the key of C. Part one will explore chords that are a perfect fourth and/or fifth apart. Part two will explore chords that are a second apart, and part three will explore chords that are a third apart.
In order to sugar coat this info for the kiddos, it’s time to return to our hero’s journey…
The straw pallet is comfortable, but you sleep fitfully and dream that several hungry lions are chasing you. When Shella comes to collect you the following morning, she points to one of the harps on the wall. “Bring that one. It is Ceridwen’s favorite.”
Who is Ceridwen, you wonder? You obediently dismount the harp from its place and clutch it to your chest. Your anxiety begins a long, slow crescendo as you follow Shella back to the feast hall from yesternight. The chairs and tables and hordes of people are gone. Only Edrevol and his mysterious guest are present.
Shella gives you a gentle nudge forward, and you to kneel before the king.
Edrevol turns to the hooded figure by his side. “Ceridwen, allow me to introduce our new court bard. Bard, meet your predecessor, Ceridwen. Please rise.”
So! The former court bard wasn’t fed to Edrevol’s lions! You feel a wave of relief as you stand.
“Would you do me the honor of accompanying me while I sing?” Ceridwen asks, stepping forward and pulling back the dark hood to reveal the kind eyes of a girl who looks to be about your same age.
You bow low in assent and do your best to play along with Ceridwen’s tuneful singing.
*Footnote - Russo recommends doing this exercise in the key of C for beginners, but I fudged a little and chose Db to mix things up. Song lyrics for my example-piece are courtesy of Christina Rossetti (1830-1894).
In Composing Music, Ch.1 Ex. 4-8 introduce students to the first three modes of the major scale and familiarize them with William Russo’s General Rules and Basic Note Values. If you are curious about these tenets/tools, check out the book!
For my own nerdy pleasure, I gave myself a more comprehensive modal exercise with fewer restrictions by improvising 84 modal tune-lets, i.e., a tune for every mode (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian) of the 12 major keys. If you have an hour to spare and enjoy noodling, I highly recommend trying this! It’s been a good 15+ years since I’ve done this, and it was fun to see how my piano playing has evolved over the last decade or so.
In my next post, I will start Chapter 2 and continue adventuring with the kids! In the meantime, here is link to Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic. If you are need of some inspiration and cheerleading in the creative living department, read this book!
When I was a youngster, it was considered cool and maybe even essential to suffer for your art. I was told that nothing I played or wrote would be any good until my heart got broken. Maybe this is true, maybe not…but I wish I could go back and tell that person that whether my art is good or bad (or whether my heart is intact or in bits) is beside the point. I make art/music for the same reasons that most people watch Netflix or share a delicious meal with friends: for pleasure, self-soothing, and connection with others. Let it be known once and for all - I’m not trying to impress you, compete with you, be the best, steal your gig or your boyfriend/husband/money, etc.
It felt nice to read Big Magic and have my feelings validated. This book was like a big hug from a friend. Thank you, Elizabeth Gilbert!
The guard doesn’t speak. She leads you down a deserted path to a row of small huts behind Edrevol’s castle. She stops at the threshold of the last hut and turns to address you. She speaks in straightforward tones, but you detect a hint of an accent and something else...sympathy?
“Here are your new quarters. Inside, you will find several instruments that were left behind by our former court bard. Make use of them. The king is expecting a visitor tomorrow at noontide, and you must be prepared to entertain them with a song. My name is Shella, and I will be coming to collect you when the sun is at its highest peak.”
She departs, leaving you to wonder what happened to the former court bard...
The inside of the hut is surprisingly homey. There is a fireplace, a small table and chair, a bookshelf, a sleeping pallet, and several ornately carved stringed instruments and flutes hanging on the walls.
You take down a small harp with five strings, and begin to compose a song using a row. In music, a row is a group of tones that are always used in the same order. Tones may be repeated and/or used in other octaves.
Here is your chosen row:
Using only these two rhythms, create a tune for your impending noontide performance!
Luckily for you, King Edrevol likes your first performance so much that he decides to spare your life and declares to the revelers at the feast, “we have a new court bard!” The Lorac burst into a communal uproar, hooting and banging their tankards on the long wooden tables. A chant begins from the back of the feast hall and is taken up by the entire congregation – “One more song! One more song!” It seems you have no choice. You take a deep breath, and begin.
You discover that by controlling the amount and speed of your breath, you can vary the octave of the four tones of the Imperial Flute, and you decide to use only the following two rhythms:
A melodic cell is a small group of notes that can be played in any order, in any octave.
When you finish your song, a chorus of throaty cheers and stamping boots erupt from the onlookers. You are shocked to see Edrevol wipe a tear from his hairy cheek. The king brandishes a lacey kerchief and dismisses you with a hardy nose-blow. The audience returns their attention to their vittles, and you are unsure of what to do until one of the king’s guards beckons for you to follow. She leads you away from the smoke and hubbub of the feast and out into the fresh night air.
The Imperial Flute
In the hopes of capturing the imaginations of my students and keeping them engaged as we work through our Composing Music textbook, I will spin a Scheherazade-esque tale that requires the students to create/perform new compositions that will get them out of tight scrapes.
Author William Russo provides the seed for our story in the very first paragraph of Chapter 1:
You have been captured by the Lorac, a bloodthirsty clan ruled by the notorious King Edrevol. Unless you are able to impress the king with your Imperial Flute skills, you are told in no uncertain terms that you will become cat food for the court lion!
The Imperial Flute can only play four tones, and Edrevol is partial to songs in 5/4. Therefor, you must create/perform a song at the feast tonight that is limited to the following tones and rhythm:
Pitch limitation and rhythmic limitation are useful compositional tools! By limiting your choices, you can focus on one thing at a time and prevent feelings of overwhelm that can sometimes arise when you’re looking at a blank page or trying to decide how to proceed with a composition.
My private teaching practice has taught me that kids (and most grown-ups!) are usually much more willing to attempt song-writing if I give them bite-sized writing prompts and game-ify the process instead of giving them free reign right off the bat. The initial boundaries help them feel safe to experiment and explore without fear of failure, and they also love to test those same boundaries when they get tired of their limited choices!
I have tasked myself with staying one step ahead of my students as we work our way through William Russo's book, Composing Music:
"Aimed at those who have some knowledge of music but not formal training in composition, this concise introduction to composing starts right in with a brief composition exercise, then proceeds step by step through a series of increasingly complex and challenging problems, gradually expanding the student's musical grammar."
Yes, please! Let's go!