The mysterious power of music has intrigued thinkers across the centuries. Plato described a universe in which Sirens situated atop the rings of the cosmic whorl each sing a single note from a great scale, together producing concords that can transport mortals to the heavenly regions. In our own time we tend to use other metaphors to explain the phenomenon -- with terms like "brain scan" and "beta-endorphins" -- but when listening to an exquisite piece of music, who could deny the emotional truth of Plato's vision?
Perhaps we respond so forcefully because, as Clement of Alexandria put it, the human body is itself a musical instrument. That was the view not only of the ancient Greeks but also of the Indian masters who strongly influenced Michael Harrison's musical development. Both proposed deep connections between the arrangements of tones and the human condition, and pointed to the most fundamental musical relationships -- those defined by Pythagoras in "whole number" proportions, as when strings vibrate in the ratio of 2:1, or 3:2, or 4:3 -- as being endowed with special qualities.
These comprise the tuning known as "just intonation," and generate the musical alchemy found throughout this intoxicatingly beautiful recording. In Just Ancient Loops, says cellist Maya Beiser, these unique musical relationships allow the sound of the cello to shimmer and bounce. "It's as if you are turning all the artificial lights off and just letting the rays of sunlight into your space," she says. In her recording and concert collaborations, Ms. Beiser has sought to redefine the traditional boundaries of the cello, opening new sonic possibilities for human expression. In this collaboration, Beiser and Harrison's musical and spiritual worlds converge.
"Michael's music is perfect for our times," Beiser observes. "It's architectural and precise, yet exhilarating and beautiful. It draws on music from ancient Greece and the Renaissance, Indian ragas and minimalism." This project is just the latest example of Michael Harrison's remarkable path, which has wound its way through compositional possibilities outside the modern Western canon and the denatured sounds of its modern tuning system. In his landmark piano work Revelation, he used "very small but perfectly tuned microtonal intervals to create a sound world of sustaining, pulsing" and kaleidoscopic effects. "With Time Loops, I'm demonstrating the simpler and more harmonious aspects of just intonation," he says. "As a result the tunings on the CD don't push the boundaries, but rather they sound clearer and more direct than the normal equal tempered scale that is used in most Western music."
Of course, the tuning would offer little to command our attention without Harrison's spectacular gifts for melody and dramatic structure, or Beiser's entrancing colors and sonic contours. "I composed the music for Time Loops because I love Maya's playing, the incredible range and scope of the cello, and the way it compliments and contrasts with the piano," he says. "That appreciation can be savored in the opening three tracks [the 'Genesis,' 'Chorale' and 'Ascension' movements from Just Ancient Loops, a 25-minute musical odyssey for an orchestra of cellos, with each cello part recorded separately by Maya in the studio." (In concert, Ms. Beiser plays the lead part live, accompanied by a recording of all the other parts, along with a film created for the project by Bill Morrison that uses archival footage plus computer-generated images that relate the movement of the planets to the basic ratios of the musical overtone series.) "The cello becomes this 'uber instrument,'" Beiser explains, "laying down the drones, building rhythmical grooves on top of each other, singing melismatic melodies, and reaching up to the stratosphere as the music evolves and builds into a massive, exhilarating climax."
A gorgeous Raga Prelude suggests the unfolding of an ancient narrative. Michael Harrison based it on a melodic archetype from North Indian music, Raga Yaman, similar to the Lydian mode. Arvo Part's Spiegel Im Spiegel and Gounod's Ave Maria (based on the famous arpeggiated figuration from Bach's Prelude in C Major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I) are also offered on this recording (both executed in just intonation). The title track to Time Loops offers a brilliant and delightful new take on Ave Maria: the piano part was recorded and played backwards through a computer while the cello rendered the melody in retrograde (reverse order). A straightforward performance of Gounod's original follows that inspired reconstruction.
The concluding work Hijaz was commissioned by the Young People's Chorus of New York City, under the direction of Francisco J. Nunez, and premiered in 2011 at the 92nd Street Y in New York. "My intention was to invoke a sense of pilgrimage, either to a wondrous, natural or holy place," Harrison says, "or metaphorically, to a sacred place within us. The chorus represents the soul of the journeyer. The melodies are meant to give a sense of the searing sun and wind amongst the desert and mountainous landscapes. The pulsing rhythms trace our footsteps, and those of our camels or horses, as we make our way on the path of self-discovery. The text is comprised of vowels, South Indian rhythmic and tabla syllables, and a universal prayer that I wrote for the work."
Hijaz, one of the oldest modes in use in the Middle East and North Africa, is also known as the Phrygian dominant scale. It has been used by Andalusian musicians, gypsy guitarists and American jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and Chick Corea, and has also made its way into Hebrew prayers and Turkish melodies. Anyone present at the premiere can attest to the sense of wonder induced by these talented youngsters -- even on disc, it's easy to sense the deeply heartfelt nature of the performance. And the prayer is one we can all embrace:
All the Masters, Saints and Prophets,
Give me guidance in my life
and teach me harmony and music.
We are one race.
We are one voice.
Touch my feet to Mother Earth
and lift my spirit to the Heavens.
We are one voice in eternal love,
In eternal love.
We are one voice.
Lift my spirit to the Heavens.
One voice in eternal love.
-- Stuart Isacoff