E. L. Bearer



Bearer of Music


Music by E.L. Bearer


The Nicholls Trio: A musical biography of a scientist


Toccata, duet for guitar & viola


Fenestrae for string quartet




Music, Medicine, and Elaine Bearer




Every musical composition is the product of an interaction between its composer's biography, musical heritage, and training — even if that training was not all in the field of music. Elaine Bearer is a fascinating example of a composer whose music comes from an exceptionally varied and rich background, which includes in particular the study of medicine and biological research. No other composer could have written the Nicholls Trio, which is the centerpiece of this recording, because none combines the unique elements of musical training, biographical connections, and medical research experience that made the work possible.




On the face of it, medicine and music would not seem to have much in common, other than the fact that both disciplines require years of experience and constant practice. Yet many communities with clinical research and medical school facilities also have “doctors' orchestras.” And a surprising number of people active in the field of medicine are also musicians of a high caliber. Some well-known composers aspired, at one point or another, to the field of medicine, too. Hector Berlioz (who will return in another connection) first left his native French countryside for Paris to attend medical school though he rather quickly gave up that profession for music. And Alexander Borodin studied at the Medico-Surgical Academy in St. Petersburg, though he eventually turned to chemistry as his profession, keeping music as a passionate hobby.




Elaine Bearer is a remarkable contemporary example of a composer who has also actively followed the very different career of a medical researcher. Already at a very early age she was called upon to choose between two passions, and although one or the other seemed to win out temporarily, both have been continuing realms of activity in a busy life. Music first seemed to have the upper hand. She began composing already at the age of six. Music continued to enthrall her through her secondary school years, and she attended Carnegie Mellon University as a music major, studying composition with Carlos Surinach and Virgil Thomson. In 1967 she went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, a central experience of her life, and upon returning, she completed her bachelor's degree at the Manhattan School of Music, where her teachers included Mario Davidovsky and Ludmilla Ulehla. During these Manhattan years, she was also working as freelancer on the French horn, performing at times with Stokowski's American Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and the Orchestre de Paris (the latter under the direction of Charles Munch). She received a master's degree in musicology from New York University and began work on a doctorate there. Music would seem to have won out totally.




In 1973 she moved to San Francisco and began teaching music and composing. The composing never stopped, but before long she discovered that teaching solfeggio and dictation to freshman was detrimental to her inner ear and turned to biology, the other subject that had always interested her. Following two years at Stanford to get the medical school prerequisites she had bypassed earlier, she proceeded to the University of California, San Francisco, where she earned an M.D. and a Ph.D., completing both degrees in record time. Then followed a year in Geneva, Switzerland where she joined Lelio Orci's Laboratory at the University of Geneva. Upon returning to San Francisco she did a residency in the Department of Pathology while, at the same time, was Composer-in-Residence to the university's symphony orchestra.




In 1991 she moved to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where she holds two appointments, as Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music and as Assistant Professor of Medical Science, continuing an active bifurcated but integrated life of medicine and music.






The Nicholls Trio




The character of any musical work may depend, to some degree, on the musicians for which it is written or the particular performance opportunities that bring it into being. But few pieces can have been shaped so fully by the personality, character, and interests of their dedicatee as the Nicholls Trio, written as a graceful tribute on his 65th birthday to John G. Nicholls, a distinguished scientist, former teacher, and long-time friend of the composer's. Now Director of Pharmacology at the Biocenter of the University of Basel, Nicholls was previously on the faculty of Stanford University, where Elaine Bearer was one of his students. When the idea arose to create a musical equivalent of the traditional scholarly Festschrift for Nicholls' 65th birthday — a Feststuck, perhaps — Bearer designed the work to reflect his musical enthusiasms and other interests, as well as his specific contributions to scientific research.




It is a trio for the customary violin, cello, and piano (with the addition of special instruments in the second movement); and each of the four movements has a specific link to the dedicatee. The work had its world premiere in Miami, Florida, on November 12, 1994, at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, at which Nicholls was feted on his birthday.




Because Beethoven is one of Nicholls' favorite composers, Elaine Bearer chose to write a Beethoven homage (Allegro sopra Beethoven) as the first movement of her piece, casting it in sonata allegro form and using Beethovenian themes. “I had so much fun,” she says, “after I gave myself permission to do this.” Only after she had completed the movement did she realize that the main theme actually is by Beethoven, from his Opus 18, No. 4, string quartet. “I had heard the Tokyo String Quartet play the piece about a month before I got the commission, and it must have stuck subconsciously.” The sweetly lyrical second subject of her sonata form alludes even more extendedly to Schubert's great Quintet in C for strings. Later she employs, and considerably develops, a figure — or as she calls it, really a “shape” — that Beethoven virtually throws away in the third movement of his F-major piano sonata. “I thought, `What a pity that has been tossed out and never developed.' so I developed it.” The whole movement evokes, without literally copying, the era of early romanticism and two of its greatest representatives.




John Nicholls loves Peru; the second movement Inca Sun (Allegretto), alludes to this interest by drawing upon Peruvian folk dance tunes, with their crisp, irregular meters and lively energy, for its material, and requires the performers to make some authentic Peruvian sounds by way of an ocarina and bead rattle.




Another of Nicholls' musical enthusiasms is Berlioz, and, for her third movement, Cigît une Rose (Adagio), Elaine Bearer has created an unusual fusion of Berliozian melody and ancient Aztec poetry — precisely the kind of quirky piece that Berlioz himself might have composed to commemorate an event in his life. The impetus for the movement goes back to the time when Bearer was studying and working with Nicholls at Stanford. Knowing that she was a trained musician, and one who had lived and studied in France, at that, John Nicholls challenged her to remember the second song (“The Spectre of the Rose”) from Berlioz's cycle Les Nuits d'éte; Bearer promptly sang it, in French, to demonstrate her familiarity with it. The title of the movement comes from the last lines of the song, which read in translation:




A poet wrote with his kiss:


“Here lies a rose


That kings will envy.”




But Berlioz's text does not appear within the body of the song; rather Bearer has chosen a far more exotic text, in the Naguatl-Aztec language, from a 15th-century Mexican prince, Texcoco. This poem on the fragility of beauty is spoken by the pianist, first in Naguatl, and then in Spanish, during the performance of this evocative movement, which several times calls forth Berlioz's melody in passionate terms.




(Aztec text:) Quin oc ca tlamati no yollo:


Yehua niccaqui in cuicatl,


Nic itta in xochitl:


Ma ca in cuetlahui ya.




(Spanish text:) Por fin lo comprende mi corazon:


Escucho un canto,


contempo una flor:


Ojala, no se morchiten!




(Translation:) Now my heart understands:


Listen to a song,


Contemplate a rose:


O alas, let them not wither!




The final movement of the work makes specific reference to John Nicholls' research on the central nervous system of the leech, employing the results of this research in a surprising musical way. Nicholls studies the electrical potential of the nerves of the leech, making this audible by inserting micropipettes into neurones and attaching them to amplified speakers. This produces a noise in a complex rhythm as the neurones in the leech ganglion fire off their electrical signals between the cells. The title of the fourth movement, Hirudo basiliensis, is a learned joke: it means “the leech of Basel,” a reference to the location of Nicholls' research lab and the organism that he studies there. Bearer opens the movement with instrumental rhythms derived from the electrical firing patterns of the leech neurones. This lively and exciting rhythm dominates parts of the movement, but the composer has also introduced a “surprise” melody a yodeling sort of tune of Swiss character as a tribute to Nicholls' current place of residence by way of contrast.






Toccata, for viola and guitar




Contemporary composers have enjoyed greatly enlarging the number and variety of instrumental combinations that earlier composers rarely employed. Among other things, a new combination of instruments allows for the exploration of unusual color combinations. The guitar is a stringed instrument that is almost always played by plucking; the viola can be plucked, but, for the most part, composers call for violists to play with a bow. Elaine Bearer's Toccata (1989) begins with plucked sounds from both instruments in music of a vigorous and virtuosic character implied by the name “toccata” (the Italian word simply means “touched” — that is, played on an instrument rather than sung, but when the term first appeared, in the early 17th century, it meant a kind of “touching” that no run-of-the-mill player could hope to match). The formal shape is an easily perceptible alternation between two different kinds of material in a loose ABABA patter, but the mood is more intense than that simple description suggests. As the composer has put it:




“The piece is about obsession. In other words, the structure is obsessive, and the emotion that inspired it was obsession.




“The obsessive nature of the structure is the use of repetition. Just as the obsessing individual repeats over and over some triggering comment, some hurtful phrase, so the small motifs in this piece weave in and out, obsessing upon and about each other, repeating over and over with many variations, turned inside out and upside down.




“The repetitions are at all dimensions, from single notes to short three-note motifs or whole sections full of phrases. The internal fractal structure of chaos might be another way to describe this structure.”






Fenestrae, for string quartet




The earliest piece on this recording is a series of character miniatures for string quartet composed in 1983 for the Kronos Quartet. Fenestrae is the Latin word for “windows”; each of the four brief movements opens onto a different musical world and allows a brief glimpse before it is closed off again. It is one of Bearer's most frequently performed works. She writes, “The quartet was written after the birth of my second son. As I nursed him, I dreamed these windows into my life.” With the exception of the slow and lyrical third movement, most of the rest of the work is kinetic in character, built from urgent rhythmic figures, ostinatos, and energetic syncopations. The third movement offers a respite in sustained notes oscillating lightly, rising in gentle leaps, echoing one another in an instrumental dialogue to a climax and descent.




© 1995 Steven Ledbetter






About the performers




Thomas Moore (violin) is a member of the applied faculty at University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. He has performed in commercial recordings in the past, including works by the son of Stravinsky for Sony Classics. He is concertmaster for the Ballet Orchestra of Miami, Florida. Andy Kolb (cello) is a graduate student and teaching assistant to Ross Harbaugh at the University of Miami. Bernice Mrozinski Harbaugh (piano) received Bachelor's and Master's degrees, “cum laude,” from Indiana University School of Music, where she was a student of Gyorgy Sebok. She has held faculty positions at the University of Oklahoma, North Carolina School of the Arts, Central Connecticut State University, and the Music Academy of the West. She has been Artist in Residence with the Grand Rapids Symphony and Principal Pianist of the New Haven Symphony. Chris Bystroff (viola) studied viola with Geraldine Lamblier, the first violist with the San Francisco Symphony under Edo de Waart. When this recording was made, Chris was a post-doctoral fellow in Biochemistry-Biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco. Chris now has a Fulbright Fellowship to teach in Nicaragua. Michael Harding (guitar) was an Instructor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music at the time this recording was made. Michael is now studying for a Ph.D. in Music Education at Arizona State University in Tucson.




The Charleston Quartet, the Resident String Quartet at Brown University, includes Charles Sherba and Lois Finkel, violins, Consuelo Sherba, viola, and Daniel Harp, cello. A young quartet, they have just begun their recording career this year with twentieth century works on Sony, Gasparo and Albany labels including the recording of three of Samuel Adler's string quartets for Gasparo. They performed the East Coast premiere of Bearer's Fenestrae at Brown University in May 1992.




Recording artists: Chris Burt (San Francisco) and Chris Greenleaf (Rhode Island) and digital mastering by Allan Turner of Foothills Digital, New York City.




Cover shows a neuron in the central nervous system of the medicinal leech, Hirudo medicinalis.




Photograph by Dr. David Van Essen.


The Nicholls Trio is published by Hildegard Publishing Co., Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.






Bearer of Music


Music by E.L. Bearer




The Nicholls Trio: A Musical Biography of a Scientist


dedicated to John G. Nicholls, FRS


Allegro sopra Beethoven (9:55)


Inca Sun (Scherzo allegretto) (6:07)


Cigît une rose (Adagio) (9:30)


Hirudo Basiliensis (Allegro) (3:39)


Thomas Moore, violin • Andy Kolb, cello • Bernice Harbaugh, piano




Toccata (8:03)


Chris Bystroff, viola • Michael Harding, guitar






Opening — letting in the light (1:33)


Morning sunshine through venetian blinds (1:17)


Afternoon breezes through an open window (4:02)


Colors of sunset fall on the Persian rug (1:18)


The Charleston Quartet




Total Time = 45:34