Music of Ivan Tcherepnin


Ivan Tcherepnin

Flores Musicales

Five Songs

Santur Live


Flores Musicales calls for oboe, psaltery and violin, all of whose sounds are processed and transformed (sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes radically) by a veritable armada of electronic modules. The work received its first performance on November 29, 1979 at Boston University.

The outer movements, Overture (P'tite P'tite) and Concatenations, are both canonic. In the first movement (inspired by the Gran' Partita of Mozart), the chromatic, cascading melodies are passed through a delay circuit that creates an electronic double of each instrumental line - the result is a giddy kind of perpetual motion machine. The continuous motion of this overture is put into relief by the quite stasis of The Ghost Violin. This passage of meditative and disembodied lyricism uses a pitch tracking circuit to evoke a feeling of empty space and dream-like gesturing; the maze of sonic imagery that is created leads into Grand Fire Music. In this third movement, the oboe and violin play simple, unabashedly tuneful phrases in counterpoint accompanied by the rich, golden drone of the “teraphonic organ.” Following the conclusion of Grand Fire Music, there is a brief improvisational section (the only one of its kind in this otherwise totally notated piece), High in the Woods, characterized by short, bird-like figurations which have a kind of spectral luminescence about them (a result of electronic processing). The finale, Concatenations, begins as a sober little canon for oboe and violin, but quickly evolves into fantastical sound images, a sort of musical Hieronymus Bosh painting, with a “scene by the brook” and a Gothic coda, full of wobbly chords and sliding pitches, that seems like a virtual bestiary of sonic creatures.

  • Adapted from notes by John Adams

Five Songs was commissioned by WFMT-FM in Chicago as part of a project initiated by author/critic Karen Monson on the twentieth-Century art song. The premiere took place in March, 1979, on WFMT, with Marion Dry as soloist. A review of the work in Chicago Magazine noted that “The songs' format and texts explore the border zone between sense and nonsense, truth and deception, comedy and tragedy...the area between categories, where life mostly takes place.”

If one were to look for a theme in the cycle, it would be the very same theme as that of most songs since the dawn of music: Love (promised, betrayed, mischievous, chivalrous, yearned for, scorned, divine, profane, etc.). Musically, each piece is characterized by a distinctive use of voice and electronic “instrumentation.” Through the use of electronics, the voice becomes its own accompaniment, abetted by the flute which acts as the voice's alter ego. The distinction between voice and accompaniment, and between text and music, break down during the course of the piece.

The solfege syllables that are presented at the beginning of the song gradually begin to resemble familiar words, to the point where they “take off,” forming verselets - ditties which float on the surface of nonsense. In the end, the bubbles burst and `do-mi” returns, but the syllable no longer correspond to the pitches with which they were previously associated. As if there had not been a surfeit of “do-mi's” already, the second song Apres le Do-Mi begins with “do-mi” all over again, but does not linger there; it creates instead a cut-and-dried commentary on the first song.

Pfft! (not to be confused with the French beverage, Pschtt!) is like a scherzo. The voice and flute produce a constant stream of raw materials which give the electronic apparati a chance to flex their muscles. Stefan Tcherpnin (b. September, 1977) furnished much of the text for this song.

The fourth song, Queues, returns to the formed words. The text begins with a list of different names for the same star, and moves on to include names of several imaginary plants (from Edward Lear's Nonsense Botany), names for cosmic processes (coined by G. Gurdjieff), Latin quotations from Jarry's Le Surmale, more imaginary plant names, and works coined in 1943 “hubba-hubba, bazooka, chin turret, G.I. Joe, etc.” (from Kenneth Versand's Polyglot's Lexicon). All of this material culminates in a quote from the sufi master Ibn Arabi (b. 1032) that attempts, as Lao-Tzu had done a millennium and a half before, to describe the indescribable: “The Tao which can be known is not the Tao.” Throughout the piece, the text undergoes time-delayed electronic processing so that, in effect the words watch different forms of themselves emerge instantaneously. Lear's drawings of the imaginary plants are incorporated in the score as a type of musica ficta.

After the Queues (Tales) draws on case histories from the classic turn-of-the-century medico-forensic text Psychopathia Sexualis by Krafft-Ebing. In between, there are more references to Jarry (“Encore ardente!”) and to Joyce's Finnegan's Wake (HCE:LUSTSLEUTH?”). The piece comes to a close with the text of a medieval song whose tale, which has been retold by Hermann Hesse, rings a timeless truth.

“Plaisir d'mour dure qu'un instant, Chagrin d'amour dure toute la vie.”

  • and music remains after all else is forgotten.

  • Notes by Ivan Tcherepnin

Santur Live!

Scenes from Santur Opera

Santur Live! Is a collection of eight scenes from Ivan Tcherpnin's Santur Opera, as performed in eight different venues on two continents over a period of seventeen years. This spatial and temporal breadth is appropriate for an opera without singers or libretto, an opera which is staged only in the mind of the listener. Santur Opera uses only one instrument, which is modified electronically in a variety of ways, and only one tuning (see figure 1), a nine-step scale created by the composer. Yet each scene has its own unique permutation of acoustic and electronic sound, each scene uses different modes (viz, moods) drawn from the common scale, and each, within its own structural and motivic boundaries, is improvised anew at every performance. The weaver and loom of this sonic tapestry are, respectively composer/performer Tcherepnin and his eighty-stringed diva, the Persian santur.

The genesis of Santur Opera was the santur itself, a Persian hammered dulcimer presented to Tcherepnin in 1972 by a visiting Iranian student. Tcherpnin, a pianist, confesses, “I have always loved to play things with hammers.” He sees the santur as an instrument analogous to the piano. Both are innately orchestral, their timbres produced by hammers striking strings. “Each scale degree of the santur sounds on four free-vibrating strings,” he explains, “and the resultant tone has a glowing, evolving quality - which lends itself well to electronic processing such as filtering, phasing, digital delay, gating, and various types of modulation.”

Having conceived the opera as a solo work, Tcherepnin had to figure out a way to simultaneously play the santur and control the electronics. The logical conclusion was to have the strike of the hammer send the signal. Working with the Serge Synthesizer, created by his brother Serge Tcherepnin, and an analog delay designed by David Wilson, Tcherepnin developed means to manipulate the santur's sound through the manner of play. During a performance of the opera, the electronics respond directly to the way the string or body of the instrument is struck. “For example,” says Tcherepnin, “ a hand attack might result in a fast electronic pulsation applied to the sound, which slows as the sound fades.” A separate control patch was developed for each scene of the opera. Each would have its own timbral language, showing the tremendous range of the source instrument and in electronic “mate.”

The story told in Santur Opera mirrors the conundrum of its instrumentation and performance. It is at once ancient and modern, archetypal and eccentric, figurative and literal, dead-serious and tongue-in-cheek.

The events take place in a land as distant in space as in time. Unrest and uncertainty are running rampant, yet the populace is convinced that all is normal. Enter the Hero: a holy fool, who naively perceives that everything is upside-down (1. Overture: The Situation in the Land). He believes through the purity of his love, he will be able to prevail over the disorder (2. Tentative Attempts to Set Things Right), but he is derailed by the intervention of the seducing feminine

(3. The Call of the Lunar Feline). She tempts his love from its pinnacle of unlived idealism and catches him in a samsaric web of relationship. The hero's focus becomes confused, flooding the land and its people with longing through his impure incarnation of disembodied love (4. Night Idyll. 5. Dream Filtering 1, 6. Dream Fil-terings 2).

Morning comes and normal life resumes at the Marrakesh Market. But the unleashing of love the previous night has given the Authorities the perfect excuse to incriminate the hero and his beloved, on grounds of immorality. Planning to eliminate them and the threat they pose to the (upside-down) order of things, the Army pursues the paramours relentlessly over the entire planet. Word spreads that the lovers have been caught and killed (7. The Army and the Chase). But order is far from restored. All the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that the lovers had contained are let loose, and the land is swept into a wild bacchanalia in which everyone loses their marbles. Is it the end of the world?

An angel appears (8. The Herald of Good Tiding), bringing the news that the conjunction is occurring: the lovers are alchemically transmuted into silver and gold! A new calm infuses the land, and the earth is reordered, garlanded with chains of flowers.

Since 1976, Tcherepnin has performed many versions of Santur Opera. It was staged by Peter Sellars at the 1981 Festival d'Automne in Paris, and, in 1982, it was awarded the Ars Electronica Grand Prize in Linz. Shortly after this honor, Tcherepnin stopped performing the work.

Santur Opera awoke in 1994 to a strange world of people with PC's and MIDI devices. “Here was the challenge,” says Tcherepnin. “Could this technology breathe new life into the piece without destroying its identity?” What were the digital consequences of the analog originals? The Santur's sounds were sampled and frequency and amplitude sensing MIDI interface was added to the existing electronics, represented in this recording by 6. Dream Filtering 2 and 7. The Army and the Chase. Like the Hero and the Lunar Feline, Santur Opera has died and come back to life reinforced by new means, giving us structure, story and sound with which to reorder our aural universe.

1. Overture: The Situation in the Land

Because the world the Hero sees is upside down, the melodies of this scene are created by inverting the harmonic series (the natural sequence of overtones that color a pitch). Instead of arising from a multiplication of the low fundamental, the tones descend as divisions of a higher pitch.

Here the strength of the hammer strikes control the pitch and timbre of the sub-harmonic pitches and melodies. (Recorded: California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, 1980).

2. Tentative Attempts to Set Things Right

In this sense, we hear the voice of the Hero through the santur's own sound as it pulses through the Serge Synthesizer with a dynamic and percussive instability, according to where and how hard the hammers strike the strings. (The Kitchen, New York, 1979)

3. The Call of the Lunar Feline

The “meowing” quality is produced by slaving oscillators to a master oscillator, which is manually controlled on the synthesizer to create slides around the sub-harmonic degrees introduced in the Situation in the Land. (Festival d'Automne, Paris, 1980).

4. Night Idyll

The santur's sound is altered by sweeping filters and varying pulsations, suggesting the languorous activities of the night. (Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, 1978).

5. Dream Filtering 1

As in a dream, the imagined voice of the santur is filtered further and further from its origin, increasing to a maximum sensitivity and rapidity the pulsing circuitry used in Tentative Attempts to Set Things Right. (10 Langton Street, San Francisco, 1980).

6. Dream Filterings 2

The dream, re-dreamed through digital technology. Here, the santur's voice spirals even further away from its origin, as its hammer strikes - control digital samples of itself, triggered with a MIDI interface connected to the santur and the Serge. (New Music Circle, Saint Louis, 1994).

7. The Army and the Chase

as the army chases the lovers across the globe, the santur responds with the whole of itself: strings, metal pegs and wooden body are tapped to signal the Wilson Analog Delay, other modules of the Serge synthesizer, and a digital sampler. (In performance, satellite images of far-flung locations on the planet are projected, tracking the chase as it draws to its catastrophic end). (Watertown, Massachusetts, 1994).

8. The Herald of good Tidings

This scene is based in part on an Indian piece called Svara Mandala as performed by Sri Parvakitar. The analog delay creates a flanging effect. Although the voice of the santur is continually going in and out of phase, the world has begun to right itself: the original upside-down harmonic series is inverted to become a right-side-up one, rising from the stability of a new fundamental. (Longy School, Cambridge, MA, 1977).

  • Notes by Deborah Eve Kodiak

Ivan Tcherepnin (b. 1943, Paris) comes from a family steeped in musical traditions. Grandson of conductor/composer Nikolai Tcherepnin (1873-1945), son of Alexander Tcherepnin (1899-1977) and pianist Ming Tcherepnin (1915-1991), Ivan received early training in music from his parents. He completed his studies at Harvard University, where his principal teacher was Leon Kitchner. Subsequently he joined the faculties of the San Francisco Conservatory of music and Stanford University. Since 1972 Tcherepnin has taught at Harvard University, where he is also Director of the Electronic Music Studio. Ivan Tcherepnin has lectured, conducted and performed throughout Europe, Asia and the U.S. He is an accomplished pianist as well as a versatile player of psaltery, Persian santur and synthesizer. In 1989 and 1991 he toured the Far East where he taught and performed in concerts of his music. In 1990 he was invited to Moscow to participate in a concert of three generations of music by Tcherepnins.

Ivan Tcherepnin's numerous composer residencies include the Santa Fe Music Festival (USA), Dartington Summer Music School (UK), Music At Marlboro (USA) and the Korsholm Music Festival (Finland). Recognition of his work includes awards form the American Society of Composers, Artists and Publishers (ASCAP), the National Endowment For the Arts (NEA), the Rockefeller Foundation and Grand Prize of the Ar Electronica Festival in Austria for Santur Opera. Recent commissions include The Creative Act a live/electronic score for the ballet Field and Figures by Merce Cunningham, Concerto for two Continents recently recorded by the American Wind Symphony Orchestra, and And So It Came To Pass, a cantata commissioned on the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the Oratorio Music Society at Carnegie Hall. Tcherepnin is currently completing a Double Concerto for cellist Yo Yo Ma and violinist Lynn Chang.

An innovator in the field of live electronic music since the mid `60's, the composer holds a deep conviction that the ear-mind connection is the most important avenue for communication and development available to humans. Keeping this channel open and free of artificial constraints has been one of Tcherepnin's primary artistic goals. In his work, traditional and revolutionary, old and new, instrumental and electronic are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they co-exist and cross-pollinate, creating new musical “flowers.”

  • Sue Ellen Hershman

Produced by Ivan Tcherepnin

CD mastered by Ivan Tcherepnin and Robert Wolff, engineer, at Sony Classical productions, Inc., NYC

Recording: Flores Musicales and Five Songs at the Harvard University Electronic Music Studio, Harvard University, in October and December of 1981 by the composer and David Wilson. Mastered by Peter Storkerson. Santur Live! (see notes).

All selctions published by the composer (ASCAP).

Flores Musicales (1980) (24:36)

  1. Overture: P'tite P'tite (3:07)

  2. The Ghost Violin (7:58)

  3. Grand Fire Music (4:28)

  4. High in the Woods (4:38)

  5. Concatenations (4:25)

Peggy Pearson, oboe: Wilma Smith, violin; Ivan Tcherepnin, psaltery, organ and electronic processor

Five Songs (1979) (24:00)

  1. Do-Mi (10:02)

  2. Apres le Do-Mi (2:49)

  3. Pfft! (1:54)

  4. Queues (3:19)

  5. After the Queues (Tales) (5:56)

Marion Dry, Contrlato; Jean-Pierre Dautricourt, flute; Ivan Tcherepnin, electronic processor.

Santur Live! (1977-present) (27:24)

Scenes from Santur Opera

  1. Overture: The Situation in the Land (3:58)

  2. Tentatives II (2:09)

  3. The Call of the Lunar Feline (2:26)

  4. Night Idyll (6:47)

  5. Dream Filterings I (1:32)

  6. Dream Filterings II (1:22)

  7. The Army and the Chase (3:29)

  8. Heralder of Good tidings (3:21)

Ivan Tcherepnin, serge modulator electronics and santur

Total playing time: 76:00

* 1982, 1995 © 1995 Composers Recordings, Inc.