Cipher

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Cipher

Variations 1-24 and Fugue

Michael J. Evans

This piece explores the relationships between words, music, and meaning. The piece was written at a time when translation software was much less accurate than today. A spoken word excerpt from Felix Mendelssohn, which has been translated to English with one software, the result then translated into another language with a different software, then back to English with another software, then to another language. The process is repeated, and the translation degrades with each successive translation. The words fade into a theme and variations on Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words.

Filetype: Piano score and spoken word part
Format: Digital PDF (8.5 x 11")

View Score Excerpt

Duration

~40 min. total

24 short variations between 0:30-3:00 each, Fugue 11:15

Instrumentation

Piano and spoken word

Year Written

2013

Listen

from the album CIPHER (2014 Navona Records)

Notes

From the Composer

Cipher began as an experiment with translation software and a desire to do a piece that dealt with our relationships with technology. Having friends all over the world, many times I need to translate their Facebook posts into English using some kind of tool. We have all discussed how funny, and or, confusing the resultant translations can be.

Translation software is wonderful, but the difficulties in translating languages are enormous. Even if you don’t factor in syntax, there are expressions that make no sense when literally translated, not to mention the subtleties of context and connotation, as well as slang.

There are more philosophical considerations too. If I say the word tree or water, the image that comes to mind is going to vary from person to person depending on their environment and exposure. For a tree, it could be a pine, palm, or oak. Similarly, water could evoke the image of a stream, pond, or ocean. When we get to emotions, words like love can have radically different associations depending on a person’s experience. I recently discovered there is a whole area of study dealing with this topic called psycholinguistics.

All of this gave me an idea: I wondered what would happen if I took a quote about the inadequacy of words and translated it into another language using software, then, translated it back into English with another software. Furthermore, what would happen if I took the result, (the corrupted translation), and did it again, in a different language? How long would it take to degrade to nonsense? Would it take on different meanings?

You can hear the result of my experiment as the spoken word portion of Cipher. I found a quote by Felix Mendelssohn discussing the inadequacy of words compared to music in expressing ideas. The quote I used was actually a truncated and not great translation of the actual quote. Here is the actual untranslated quote from a letter dated October 15, 1842:

Die Leute beklagen sich gewöhnlich, die Musik sei so vieldeutig; es sei so zweifelhaft, was sie sich dabei zu denken hätten, und die Worte verstände doch ein Jeder. Mir geht es aber gerade umgekehrt. Und nicht blos mit ganzen Reden, auch mit einzelnen Worten, auch die scheinen mir so vieldeutig, so unbestimmt, so mißverständlich im Vergleich zu einer rechten Musik, die einem die Seele erfüllt mit tausend besseren Dingen als Worten. Das, was mir eine Musik ausspricht, die ich liebe, sind mir nicht zu unbestimmte Gedanken, um sie in Worte zu fassen, sondern zu bestimmte.

The translations began degrading as expected, but something interesting happened with Translation 3, (from Persian to English) and Translation 9, (from Turkish to English): the words “extralimital” and “seviyorsun” respectively, had been picked up and carried through with each translation once they appeared.

Extralimital is defined as outside a limit, or beyond a boundary. Seviyorsun is Turkish for “You love”. So, the thing that carried through in the translations was “You love beyond boundaries or, beyond defined limits”.

Initially I had considered doing a spoken word piece alone, which was interesting, much in the way an experiment done with two chatbots talking to each other was interesting, http://youtu.be/WnzlbyTZsQY but felt the piece wanted to express and be more.

I asked myself, what would the equivalent of the translation exercise be without words? This led me to the idea of Theme and Variations. How perfect that Mendelssohn wrote a great number of “Songs without Words”. I decided to use the opening of the Op. 19 #1 as my theme.

I’ve heard theme and variations described as a search for perfection, which may be true for some works, though personally, that definition never completely satisfied me. One night while watching an episode of Dr. Who, the concept of what the theme and variations form, and consequently, the direction the piece wanted to go, came to me. The episode was called “The Rings of Akhaten”, wherein, a creature that feeds on memories, stories, and emotions, is sated by a leaf that contained within it, infinite futures and potentials. It struck me that this is how I saw the form of theme and variations: an exploration of the unrealized potential or futures of an idea or theme. With that, I set out on the next phase of the piece.

Theme: The final translation of the quote overlays the theme for several reasons: 

  • it brings the two ideas together, as well as creates a disassociation because the words are not actually being sung or spoken with the rhythm of the melody
  • the idea of putting some derivation of the composer’s words over a “Song Without Words” sets up a nice contradiction
  • the words themselves call out for it, “I think it’s some words from my music – seviyorsun extralimital”

Variation 1 sticks very close to the theme, the difference being the rhythm of the melody; a lilting or skipping 2 note figure, not a particularly vocal treatment, the music having cast off the necessity to conform to words. 

Variation 2 continues to stick close to the original, but has now transformed into a waltz. 

Variation 3 could be viewed as the B section of the waltz. Here the ideas of the first 2 variations come together, the lilting figure is shortened to simple grace notes and the melody is gone.  The ascending bass line of the theme is now the focus.

Variation 4 reverts to a pure vocal technique, and is the first of the variations to be interpreted through the voice of another composer, J.S. Bach. Since Mendelssohn was responsible for reviving interest in Bach’s music, it seemed a fitting variation. This, along with variations 5 and 6, hints at a baroque suite.

Variation 5 was inspired by the spider. Spider, as a power animal or totem, brings the gift of creativity. She is also said to be the keeper of the primordial alphabet. In addition, because the spider’s body is shaped like the number 8 and it has 8 legs, it is associated with infinity and the infinite possibilities of creation. A quick search under shamanism and spider will tell you much more about this particular animal. 

Technically, this variation is a further development of the turn motive in the right hand in groups of 5 16th notes over an arpeggiation of the harmonic progression in the left hand eighth note triplets: 5+3=8. The melody spins out from beginning to end much in the same way a spider would spin her thread of silk.

Variation 6 imitates a majestic French overture. Here the theme is heavily ornamented.

Variation 7 is a direct contrast to the previous variation. It features a more animated development of the turn ornament from the theme and concludes with a little musical cliché. 

Variation 8 returns to a vocal treatment of the melody, this time appearing in the bass. The harmonic progression has been altered as well: instead of treating each note of the descending diatonic scale as a separate harmony, it has been remade as a series of suspended 4ths resolving. The inspiration for this particular variation is the opening of a rock ballade. If it were interpreted that way, one could hear the drums entering on measure 13 and bass on measure 14.

Variation 9 is marked Presto and is almost a prelude with block chords defining the melody.

Variation 10, the ragtime variation, represents the theme interpreted through the voice of Scott Joplin, and is important to the overall piece for a couple of reasons. First, when I began studying music, ragtime was undergoing a major revival. It was everywhere. There was a documentary on Scott Joplin and his opera Treemonisha was rediscovered, so, it takes me back to the time when I first began to use music instead of words to express myself.

The second reason is a bit more complicated, and deals with another person besides Scott Joplin, who was instrumental to ragtime’s popularity; Ernest Hogan, the first African American to produce and star in a Broadway show. It is interesting to note that one of his songs, which helped bring ragtime rhythms to the U.S., was also responsible for creating a long since forgotten, horrible genre of songs called “coon songs” which were incredibly racist. Mr. Hogan, in his later years felt pride for the former while regretting the latter. So, this variation, in a sense, represents the triumph of music over words. It is interesting to note that Satie was inspired by, and had a love of ragtime, since:

Variation 11 is in the style of Satie.

Variation 12 imagines the theme heard through the voice of Chopin, specifically the Op.25 No. 12 Etude. This piece also marks the midpoint of the variations.

Variation 13 marks the beginning of the second half of the variations and is the point at which the theme starts to go through more radical transformations.  In this variation, the bass line and the melody begin to pull apart and are each treated as separate ideas playing off each other.

Variation 14 is the first time we hear the theme in the minor. This is almost a scherzo. 

One of the wonderful things about recording a piece is how collaborative the process is. I was lucky to be working with such a great artist as Karolina. Originally I had imagined this piece at a much faster tempo, to the point where the ending becomes almost maniacal. Karolina stated that she heard it differently and started playing her tempo. The piece suddenly revealed a side of itself that I never knew existed. It took on this magical quality that we all immediately fell in love with, and that is what you hear on the recording. 

Variation 15 is again in minor and this time the theme is heard as a funeral march. The bass line from the theme is the inspiration here. 

Variation 16 marks another turning point in the piece, literally: here the theme is inverted. 

Variation 17 continues the inverted theme, placing the melody over flowing 16th notes. This time, however, it is much more tranquil than the previous variation.

Variation 18 is steeped in nostalgia and uses the same inverted melody, only in the minor. 

Variation 19 is really an extension of the previous variation.  If this were a scene from a movie, and the previous variation evoked a memory from long ago, this variation would represent the character lost in the dream, dancing.

Variation 20 stands in stark contrast to the previous 2 variations.  It is fast and full of fury and passion. 

Variation 21 turns the theme right side up again, but this time it is deconstructed. The theme is built on the interval of 4ths and 5ths.  The opening melody of the theme descends a 4th then up an octave then down a 4th again. The climax of the original theme features the interval of the 5th g# to c#. In constructing this variation I wanted to highlight both intervals. The bass line features clusters or chords built in 5ths, while the treble features clusters built on 4ths. The first couple of notes of the bass line are played, then the first couple of the melody in the treble. The piece imagines the theme through the voice of Debussy.

Variation 22 is one of the longer variations, and treats the theme in a minimalist, Philip Glass style. The simpler harmonies form a contrast to the previous variation. The rhythm is constant eighth notes, first in groupings of 2 then three and finally back to two. Just like the previous variation, the bass line plays a couple of its notes then the melody sounds a couple of notes.

Variation 23 is another deconstruction of the melody, exclusively the right hand part of the theme. The beginning and ending notes of the first 2 phrases are played as one phrase, twice, then, the notes that were left out play a cascading run.  The 2 16th notes that were played with the right hand in the original theme are then formed into rolled chords.

Variation 24 a jazz variation, is again based on the inversion of the melody, but free and improvisatory. The meter changes multiple times, and there is no specific developmental technique, (deconstruction, development of a specific motif, etc.).

From the beginning, I had imagined this piece concluding with a fugue: the spoken word portion could almost be viewed as a deconstructed fugue. Therefore; it seemed logical to end the piece by bringing the voices together. What I did not expect was how long the piece was eventually going to be and the journey it was about to take me on.

The variations, to this point, have represented hearing the theme expressed through the voices of other composers or, exploring different techniques and possibilities, looking at the nuts and bolts of the theme. The fugue, however, sets off on a path of its own. It turned out to be the journey of the wounded healer: a Jungian archetype. Check out this link for a deeper explanation: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wounded_healer Being a fan of Jung, I guess this should not have surprised me.
The Beginning

The first subject is an outline of the original theme. It is firmly in 2. The exposition unfolds with each of the 4 voices entering a 4th below the previous one with the first episode beginning at measure 20 and continuing for 8 bars.

When the subject is restated in bar 29, it is heard in the bass with a 3 note figure in the upper voices, beginning on the 2nd eighth note of each bar, emphasizing the 2/4 meter, but also introducing the number 3. This is significant, because the whole fugue deals with the idea of finding one’s own path, purpose, and voice, as well as dealing with the obstacles that one may encounter. This is represented throughout the piece by the conflict between two and three. The three note figure is the beginning of this awareness: the traveler begins to gravitate toward the 3.

The Wounding

This next section reflects the relentless and eventually violent actions of the 2 figure to force the 3 figure to conform, and the effect that said actions have on the 3 figure. We see this played out in the world on a regular basis upon any number of minority groups. It is experienced by all those perceived to be “other”. That otherness could be the result of an individual being an ethnic, religious, or sexual minority, non-gender conformist, or someone who just sees the world differently.

Measures 34 through 36 emphasize the 3 note figure. This time it begins on the beat and is repeated 4 times, essentially 3/8, even though the meter is 2/4, (symbolic of the establishment or societal norms). This grouping of 3 eighths represents the natural and free expression of the traveler, it is innocent and completely oblivious to the meter. It is immediately followed by a bar emphasizing eighth note grouping of 2. The 2 note grouping is an effort to push the traveler back to conformity, first gently then louder, (measure 41).

Measure 42 restates the subject in octaves in the bass, while the 3 note figure is paired in the upper voices. By measure 47, the 3 note grouping has contracted, closing itself off to a half step. The 2 note figure continues its attacks, pulling the 3 note figure down further and further. By measure 67, the assault becomes violent, and by measure 73, the 3 note figure is completely surrounded by the 2 note figure. It is not till measure 89 that the 3 note figure has discovered a way to disguise itself and become invisible: the 3 note figure, if repeated will line up with the 2 note figure every three bars. It therefore only sounds once every three bars.

For some, this is where the story ends. Many times the “other” is directly killed by its attackers. Of those not directly killed or disappeared by a group or government, how many have committed suicide as a result of bullying or societal pressure?

Going through the wound

Since the piece did not end here, our traveler is wounded but has survived. Something begins to happen in measures 98 through 107: the traveler looks up and begins to have hope, to gain strength. In measure 108, the voice cannot reach the perfect 5th interval that has been elevating him to this point. Still, something has changed.

Measure 110 marks the beginning of a new exposition, this time with the theme inverted and in 6/8. The 3 grouping has been firmly established and the traveler is expressing his true and authentic self. This continues through measure 125, and, measure 126 marks the beginning of a new episode. The traveler is now surrounded by voices that support his natural expression.

Measure 137 marks another shift. Not only do we return to the original key, we experience the traveler using the experience of the initial conflict between 2 and 3 as an engine to propel himself and the music forward, (the accompanying rhythm of eighth 2 sixteenths and another eighth is the composite rhythm of 2 against 3). In addition, the melody that appears above this figure is the inversion of the original melody. Remember, the original subject was just an outline of the original theme, so this represents a more complete version; by beginning to embrace his wound, the traveler has tapped into something older and more complete than the original subject.

This complete theme also symbolizes rediscovery of suppressed knowledge and history. We see this time and time again, that the histories, languages, and belief systems of minorities or indigenous peoples have been suppressed by governments or religious institutions. If they have not been completely suppressed, they have many times been rewritten as a way to justify the atrocities committed against the group. Once the true story of the minority group has been discovered and brought to light; however, it becomes a source of pride, and a rallying point for the group to demand respect and equal treatment from society.

Measure 159 ushers in another transition. Here begins the letting go. In every situation, no matter how bad, possibly out of familiarity or obligation, or possibly some desire to try to fix a situation, it is not uncommon for someone to get pulled back into toxic relationships or behaviors. In this case, the traveler feels the pull of the familiar, but realizes that he must let go.

Measure 185 is the beginning of this call to move on, and it continues to get louder, eventually becoming all that we hear. We are moving on, but where to? Measures 223 through 225 and 228 through 230 hint at something better in the distance.

Measures 233 through 256 see the traveler answering the call as he ascends in perfect 4ths. From this peak he can see how far he has come, but he cannot maintain this altitude, something is pulling him down. He can still see the peak and how far he has come, but now the traveler embraces and moves through his wound, letting it transform him. Every event, no matter how negative or painful it appeared to be at the time was necessary to bring the traveler to this place. The suspensions symbolize this process: they resolve first to the minor, (acknowledging the pain) then the major,(finding the lesson in the event), then to the perfect 5th, (complete release). With each resolution and release the traveler ascends higher. Finally at measure 303 there is stillness.

In the stillness, we sense another transition beginning. Measure 328 reveals to the traveler that there was something beyond the pinnacle that he glimpsed, and we arrive a step higher than what we, until now, perceived to be the height of awareness.

Rebirth

Beginning in measure 331 we celebrate our rebirth and unity with the Self. The tempo is faster and lighter; ecstatic. Measures 354 through 356 hint at an even higher awareness is possible and the journey is not over. It may spiral out to infinity, but for now we celebrate our newfound awareness, and embrace it with love and joy.

This sheet music is offered at no cost. PARMA Publishing and the composer encourage the printing, performing, and sharing of this work. It is our belief that music is meant to be played and heard, and our only request is that if you choose to perform this composition, we would like to know about it so we can inform our audience and the general listening public. Email publishing@parmarecordings.com or visit parmarecordings.com to share information about your performance or request additional scores.