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PROGRAM NOTES: NOVEMBER 10, 2023
The title of this piece is a conglomeration of two words: the Italian word ‘tutti’, means ‘all’ or ‘everyone’, and the term ‘tarana’ designates a specific Hindustani (North Indian) musical form, whose closest Western counterpart is the ‘scat’ in jazz. Made up of rhythmic syllables, a tarana is the singer’s chance to display agility and dexterity. While a Hindustani tarana is a solo form, I wanted to bring the tarana into an ensemble setting. Tuttarana was commissioned by the Mount Holyoke College Glee Club for their 2014-15 season, and has since been performed across the US, also in arrangements for SATB and brass quintet.
An addendum: Three years after I wrote this piece, the #metoo movement, created by Tarana Burke broke on social media. It occurred to me that the title of this piece, if read a different way, literally means “We are all Tarana.” I couldn’t believe the incredible coincidence that this work, a powerful 3-minute tidal wave of sound, written for an all-female ensemble from the oldest women’s college in the country, bore this name. I’m so grateful for what this movement has done to move the discussion forward about the horrors we face as women, and how we can begin to change and heal our society.
This Love Between Us
This Love Between Us is a piece about unity. Its seven movements juxtapose the words of seven major religious traditions of India (Buddhism, Sikhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Jainism and Islam), and specifically how each of these traditions approaches the topic of unity, of brotherhood, of being kind to one another. The texts come either straight from canonical religious writings or from poets who write through the lens of their religion. Each text is itself a union: it is set simultaneously in English and in its original language (with the exception of the Christian text, where the Malayalam is a translation), so you can hear the beauty of the original and grasp its meaning through translation. Each movement also contains a unique combination of Indian and Western classical styles, running the continuum from the Christian movement, which is rooted firmly in a baroque style, to the Zoroastrian movement, which is a Hindustani vilambit bandish. Each of the other movements live somewhere in between these two musical cultures in their techniques, styles and forms. But even more than uniting musical practices, this piece unites people from two different musical traditions: a sitar and tabla join the choir and baroque orchestra. Each of the musicians is asked to keep one hand firmly rooted in their own tradition and training, while reaching the other hand outward to greet another musical culture.
This piece is also a union for me. The time I spent studying at both Yale and Juilliard have been the foundation of my career as a Western composer. And my Fulbright year, studying Hindustani music in India opened my ears and mind to the world of Hindustani classical music. One day in late 2015, after months of pleading with embassies, government officials and agencies, I finally lost the battle for the visa I needed to return to India, simply because my grandfather had moved his family to Pakistan in the 1950s. I have never been more heartbroken in my life. The pain of being from two places is that, wherever you are, you always miss the other place. And somehow, as if in answer to my despair,
the very next day I received the email asking me to write this piece — the one you will hear today. If it is impossible to be in both places at once, or at all, I have strived every day since then to create this hybrid, united world in my music.
I wrote This Love Between Us through some of the darkest times in our country and in our world. But my mind always returns to the last line of this piece, the words of Rumi, which are repeated like a mantra over affirming phrases from each religion, as they wash over one another: “Concentrate on the Essence. Concentrate on the Light.”
Sinfonia in D Major, BWV1045
One of the most tantalizing questions about Bach’s life is: What happened to all of his music after his death? His will divided the manuscripts among his wife and children, but for several reasons (one of them being his son Wilhelm Friedemann’s alcoholism and poverty), the scores were ultimately spread far and wide. In the process, a significant number of vocal cantata manuscripts have been lost to history. Even the number is in dispute; according to his obituary, there could be as many as 100 cantatas that have gone missing, but that number is probably far too high. In any case, from time to time single movements from lost cantatas appear—and this is almost certainly the case of the piece that has come to be called the Sinfonia in D Major. Bach tended to use the word “sinfonia” for an instrumental introductory movement, something that he did in fewer than twenty cantatas. The cover of the Sinfonia’s surviving manuscript indicates that the larger work required four voices (SATB choir), strongly suggesting a cantata. As is true of a number of cantata sinfonias, this movement is essentially a concerto, in this case requiring an exceptionally fine violinist.
Magnificat in D, BWV243
Always industrious during his initial years in Leipzig, Bach’s first Christmas in his new job was especially productive. In addition to composing several cantatas for the holiday season, he wrote a new setting for the Latin text of the Magnificat, the song of praise that Mary sings when the archangel Gabriel announces that she will bear the son of God. At first glimpse, one might be surprised that the deeply Lutheran Bach would have set a text in Latin; however, despite the fact that Martin Luther stressed the importance of using the vernacular with the scriptures and much of the liturgy, there were still several parts of the Lutheran service that was still in Latin. This was particularly true in Leipzig, the seat of the most orthodox form of Lutheranism during Bach’s lifetime.
One of the most basic lessons of the Christmas story is its implied subversion of the existing social order: that a baby would become King of Kings; that a stinking rustic manger (think “stable” rather than the more picturesque “manger”) would house the world’s savior; that a poor, unmarried teenage girl would become mother to the Messiah. Bach explores these contrasts fully, amplifying that those who currently enjoy the world’s riches and power will be deposed and replaced by those who are humble of heart and station. Expressed elsewhere in the Gospels, “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first”. As wonderful as the choruses are (and they are among some of Bach’s finest), it is in the arias that Bach illustrates the contrasts between the mighty and the humble, through his use of different voice types and different instruments. The pair of soprano arias, representing Mary’s own voice, act as a prelude to the following “contrast arias”.
The lower soprano sings a song of praise, accompanied in an elegant minuet by the strings. The more poignant, plangent oboe accompanies the higher soprano as she sings of her humbleness: “He has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden”. Following a chorus, the bass then sings an aria, accompanied sparsely by the continuo section, declaring that God has lifted up Mary; the effect is almost tongue in cheek, as if spoofing the pomposity of those who hold power in the world. The beautiful duet that follows, accompanied by strings with flutes, sings of God’s mercy. Following another chorus, the next pair of arias further explores the textual contrasts. In the work’s most violent aria, the tenor sings a florid solo part singing of how the mighty will be deposed from their thrones, joined by virtuosic unison violins with fiery, jagged lines illustrating the toppling. In perhaps the most intimate aria, the alto then sings of how the hungry will be fed with good things, while the rich will be sent away empty handed. Here, Bach employs the flutes in parallel motion duet, accompanied by the evocative pizzicato of the cello and bass.
By alternating such different combinations of vocal and instrumental forces in shorter arias than normal, Bach traverses an extraordinarily large soundscape in what is not an especially long work. The full mastery of his resources presages the equally varied and richly textured arias and choruses of the major choral works that will appear over his next three decades in Leipzig.