“Comparison does not imply irony or belittling. We are in a universe in which the forms densely pack the allotted space, constantly exchanging qualities and dimensions, and the flux of time is filled with a proliferation of stories and cycles of stories. Terrestrial forms and stories echo celestial forms and stories, but each entwines the other by turns in a double spiral.
– “Ovid and Universal Contiguity”. Italo Calvino.
In late 2020, I had the opportunity to record an album of recent chamber music with Klangforum Wien. New Focus Recordings, will release the album in February. Alex Rehding spent some time with the album and contributed a program note that you can read below, along with some of my own thoughts. Check back in February for new promotions for the album, interviews, reviews, and links to purchase a copy.
Listen to some of the tracks, streaming here:
Lessons from Ovid, by Alexander Rehding
Ovid’s Metamorphoses have long been a repository for artists. From Titian to G.B. Shaw, from Bernini to Picasso – sculptors, painters, playwrights have turned to the Roman retellings of Greek myths for tales of creation and changing fortunes, divine elevation or retribution, death and transfiguration. Early opera in the seventeenth century, peopled with Daphnes and Orpheuses, is unthinkable without Ovid’s tales of gods and humans. But off the operatic stage, the Metamorphoses have only played a bit role in music: there is a smattering works based on Ovid’s characters by Karl von Dittersdorf, Benjamin Britten, Milton Babbitt, and that’s about it. This dearth is surprising, given that the very idea of metamorphosis – transformation, change over time – is perfectly matched to the medium of music. If we accept this more abstract, technical notion, we could add Paul Hindemith and Richard Strauss to the list, who both composed metamorphoses during the final years of World War II. Still, it remains curious that so few composers over the centuries have grappled with this literary giant.
Aylward takes a fresh and different perspective on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Whereas artists have traditionally mined Ovid’s overflowing imagination for subject matter for their art, Aylward is much more interested in the lessons on crafting stories that Ovid has to teach. His suite Celestial Forms and Stories (2021) builds on Ovidian narrative techniques – or more specifically, on Italo Calvino’s careful analysis of Ovid’s style. In Calvino’s readings, which he expounds in his essay “Ovid and Universal Contiguity” (1979) and Six Memos for the New Millennium, his Norton Lectures at Harvard (1985), Ovid emerges as a master of lightness, quickness, and precision – virtues that Calvino, not coincidentally, prizes in writing more generally.
These same qualities are central to the musical story-telling of Celestial Forms and Stories. Three movements of the suite take their cue from figures in Ovid’s tales: the provident quartets “Mercury” and “Daedalus,” as well as the more opulent “Narcissus.” Meanwhile, the more abstractly titled movements, “Ephemera” and “Ananke,” underscore that figurative content is not the only vector in Aylward’s musical engagement with Ovid’s Metamorphoses. To be sure, we may hear the airy opening of “Mercury” as a characterization of the winged messenger, the percussive extended techniques of “Daedalus” in relation to the inventor’s machinations, or the glassy surfaces of “Narcissus” as a programmatic element. We might even hear the buzzing of the short-lived mayfly, ephemeroptera, or the complex mythological makeup of Plato’s spindle of necessity out of the two abstract movements. But it’s less the “What?” than the “How?” that Aylward derives from his reading of Ovid. At its core lies the interplay of counterpoint and texture – these are the musical building blocks of Ovidian writerly virtues.
One of the lessons the Metamorphoses holds for the composer can be related to Ovid’s habit of presenting his characters as pairs: Narcissus and Echo, Daedalus and Icarus, Mercury and Battus. Just as each character comes into focus thanks to its counterpart, so too do certain writerly traits only shine forth against the background of their opposites: the nimble, light-footed gestures of “Mercury” fully unfold their qualities only against the long, sustained notes that complete the texture.
Each of these movements is a masterclass on the strategies of musical story-telling. “Ephemera,” conceived as the earliest movement and placed at the center of the work, may be one of the shorter pieces in the suite, but its role is nonetheless foundational. It presents the seeds of the elemental materials, gestures, textures, that return in the other movements. The strings and woodwinds of the quartet movements explore timbral and textual qualities in different pairings; the pulsating chords that orbit around “Mercury” return with full force in “Ananke.” This final and most extensive movement performs its title – Necessity – with an obsessive focus on a recurring gesture, equivalent to the Beethovenian “Muss es sein?”, that returns in various guises, be it as ambient chords, as bristling sharp attacks, or violent piano clusters. It is a study in extremes.
Of the writerly lessons that Ovid offers in his effervescent Metamorphoses, none is more important than that this book is never quite closed. (Ovid’s mythological narrative grinds to a halt by pulling the emergency brake, turning to the achievements of the Roman Empire and, finally, his own everlasting fame.) Aylward, too, is less interested in conclusions than in continuities. Even “Ananke,” the most monumental and driven movement, ends with a new, minimalist viola line that creeps up expectantly, cracking open a door that offers a glimpse onto fresh, unheard-of possibilities. The story-telling continues, even after the music is over.
Composer’s Notes for Celestial Forms and Stories
I grew up in the Sonoran Desert, a vast, magnificent, and sometimes lonely part of the planet. Living for so long in this unique desert landscape contributed a great deal to how I think of the world. I read quite a lot in those days, before the internet, and I was often drawn to what my older siblings were reading. One of my older brothers, studying to be a classical archaeologist, was reading Ovid, Virgil and Homer at the time. He gave me copies of the books he had finished and I read them alongside my own fare of Tolkien and Le Guin. I became enraptured by the worlds these authors built, perhaps partly because sometimes the fantastical landforms and plant life they were describing seemed so much like the magical landscape I was actually living in.
I was particularly fascinated by Ovid’s Metamorphoses in those days, and, as time passed, I revisited the poem many times, always asking what about it kept me so interested. Finally, I came upon a brilliant analysis of Ovid’s style by Italo Calvino. The article, “Ovid and Universal Contiguity”, is a look into some of the techniques Ovid uses in his storytelling. Calvino continued his analysis of some of these same techniques, now applied to a variety of authors, in his “Six Memos for the Next Millennium”, the published edition of what were to be his Elliot Norton lectures at Harvard. Calvino’s insights into Ovid’s techniques are particularly brilliant because they come from a fellow practitioner’s perspective. Calvino is interested in how Ovid’s exact technical means produce certain emotional and psychological effects on the reader. Calvino shows how Ovid’s work is “the representation of the entire world as a system of elementary properties”. I found this observation to be transformative in both how I understood Ovid’s writing and also in providing a first step in thinking about building my own world in music. Just as Ovid reduces improbable and fantastical transformations down to simple processes, I thought perhaps there was a way to build a musical world from similarly simple musical materials.
I began assembling musical analogs to the techniques Calvino was describing and slowly, short studies began to take shape. Some studies have remained unpublished. For whatever reason, I found them incomplete in terms of the musical resources I was trying to cohere at the time. Finally, works began to emerge that I felt shared the ‘elementary properties’ I was working with but allowed for the various transformations of those properties to be as vivid, or perhaps more vivid, than the materials themselves.
I put these works together in a suite, with the foundational musical ideas in Ephemera expanded and developed each time in the varied forms and differing stories in the works that followed. Textures, gestures, harmonies, and formal aspects recur across the pieces, aspects of them all sometimes visible, sometimes clouded, quickly passing or elongated under more mercurial material, always transformed to suit new circumstances, but holding threads of their origin. The closing pulsations of Ananke draw the suite’s material into a circular magnetism or gravity that I hope evokes a final timelessness. The works can stand alone, but I intend them to be played as a suite, where one may best hear the ways in which the varied gestures, textures, instrumental counterpoints and harmonies traverse the musical world.
The entire nexus of Greek mythology is in constant need of new analysis and artistic interpretation lest it become stale and unable to reflect the ‘universal contiguity’ Calvino so aptly recognizes. Even Ovid’s stories were not his own, but rather the myths of the day retold under his own artistic renderings. And so perhaps Ovid is one of the first to abide by the old adage that the act of writing is to rewrite the already written. I would like my Celestial Forms and Stories to be received also as an act of rewriting these myths that Ovid immortalized, in my own way, and through my own revelation of transformation.