Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Dulcimer Days

When recording music for the Drury Drama Team’s  production of The Diviners, a play by Jim Leonard, Jr., I used an Appalachian dulcimer to play the melody of Amazing Grace.  A long-time fan of Appalachian music, this was the first time I  had the opportunity to get my hands on a beautiful mountain dulcimer.  The instrument belongs to the zither family of musical instruments, meaning that the strings do not extend beyond the sounding box; the body of a mountain dulcimer is as long as the fingerboard.  (Compare this with a guitar and you’ll see the difference.)  

Me and My Appalachian Dulcimer
With a little research, I discovered many prominent musicians have also used mountain dulcimers on recordings, Joni Mitchell and Cyndi Lauper among them.  (Lauper studied the Appalachian dulcimer seriously with David Schnaufer, and featured it in her albums A Night to Remember, Sisters of Avalon, and The Body Acoustic.)  After recording my part for the Drama Team’s production, I became even more taken with the instrument.  I continue to play it, and hope to showcase it at a future date during a “Mountain Mass” at my church.  If you’re curious to hear some Appalachian music, I recommend checking out a truly fantastic, historical recording by Butch Baldassari and David Schnaufer: Appalachian Mandolin and Dulcimer.  (This is the last album David Schnaufer recorded before he passed away in 2006.)  The album, packed with traditional toe-tapping tunes, is simply delightful.  It truly captures the spirit of Appalachia.  The duo’s artistic mastery is evident from the first track, Ground Hog, and their expressivity makes a tune like Wayfaring Stranger even more deeply moving.  I know my exploration of the Appalachian dulcimer is still only in its infant stages, but I’ve certainly been enjoying it!  If you want a good introduction to Appalachian dulcimer music, this album is a sure bet.  I was quite pleased, indeed.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Text-to-Music: a Medieval Approach

Although Medieval theorists documented various techniques used to compose chant melodies, a very curious method is discussed by John “Cotton” (ca. 1100) and Guido d’Arrezo (995-1050). Both theorists proposed a method of composition that uncovers a text’s inherent pitch possibilities. One can then fashion a melody out of these possibilities, shaping the text into a melody. This is a bit similar to some of today’s websites that attempt to “translate” text into music. (Visit http://www.p22.com/musicfont for one example.) Unlike the online example, the Medieval system for composing monophonic settings of chant utilized only the vowels (a e i o u) of a text to determine pitch possibilities. This one-to-one correspondence (vowel equals pitch) thus strengthened the bond between text and music. It provided a framework in which a composer could make choices, depending on taste, that would aid the process of composition and unite text with music more cogently. For a simple example of this system, what follows is a short summary. Any five sequential notes belonging to a given mode (scale) are written out, and above them are written the five vowels a e i o u.  Each syllable of the chant is assigned a note based on the vowel it is linked with.  For instance, if we use the following order:
       a   e   i   o  u
      D  E  F  G  A
and one of the words in our chant is Dominum, it would be chanted as follows: the syllable Do would be given a G pitch, mi an F pitch, and num an A, producing the melody G-F-A.  For even more pitch choices, an entire scale can be used, and more than one pitch choice can be assigned to a vowel. For instance, the following is possible:
a   e    i   o   u   a   e   i 
G  A   B  C  D  E   F   G
i   o    u   a   e   i   o   u
Thus, the floodgates are opened and the total number of pitch possibilities per vowel is no longer limited to a meager few! Chants composed with such structural emphasis on vowels belong to the realm of “spectral composition” where the structure of the chant is governed both by melodic contour as well as sonic (vowel) opposition. Try this for yourself! You’re bound to come up with some interesting tunes!