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Glasperlenspiel

The unusual combination of bass and voice in Glasperlenspiel creates great expressive possibilities, which are enhanced by the freedom achieved through extended instrumental techniques. I have been lucky to be able to work with the singer Frank Havrøy on techniques for overtone singing that in this piece are combined with my own techniques of harmonics on the double bass. Glasperlenspiel is organized according to an alternating use of two poems, Zu einer Toccata von Bach and Das Glasperlenspiel, which are taken from Hermann Hesse’s novel by the same title.


Zu einer Toccata von Bach

Urschweigen starrt... Es waltet Finsternis...

Da bricht ein Strahl aus zackigem Wolkenriss,

Greift Weltentiefen aus dem blinden Nichtsein,

Baut Räume auf, durchwühlt mit Licht die Nacht,

Lässt Grat und Gipfel ahnen, Hang und Schacht,

Lässt Lüfte locker blau, lässt Erde dicht sein.


Es spaltet schöpferisch zu Tat und Krieg

Der Strahl entzwei das keimend Trächtige:

Aufglänzt entzündet die erschrockne Welt.

Es wandelt sich, wohin die Lichtsaat fällt,

Es ordnet sich und tönt die Prächtige

Dem Leben Lob, dem Schöpfer Lichte Sieg.


Und weiter schwingt sich, gottwärts rückbezogen,

Und drängt durch aller Kreatur Getriebe

Dem Vater Geiste zu der grosse Drang.

Er wird zu Lust und Not, zu Sprache, Bild, Gesang,

Wölbt Welt um Welt zu Domes Siegesbogen,

Ist Trieb, ist Geist, ist Kampf und Glück, ist Liebe.

Das Glasperlenspiel

Musik des Weltalls und Musik der Meister
Sind wir bereit in Ehrfurcht anzuhören,
Zu reiner Feier die verehrten Geister
Begnadeter Zeiten zu beschwören.

Wir lassen vom Geheimnis uns erheben
Der magischen Formelschrift, in deren Bann
Das Uferlose, Stürmende, das Leben,
Zu klaren Gleichnissen gerann.

Sternbildern gleich ertönen sie kristallen,
In ihrem Dienst ward unserm Leben Sinn,
Und keiner kann aus ihren Kreisen fallen,
Als nach der heiligen Mitte hin.

Following the verses of the two poems, Glasperlenspiel is divided into sections that are repeatedly interwoven. Like characters from ‘Castalia’, the performers partake in a dialogue, an intellectual ‘Klangspiel’ with Hesse’s words. A dissection of words and phrases shapes the textual and phonetic part of the voice and numerical series (derived from the poems) constitute the structural basis for the different sections of the work. Hence, the composition becomes a game with text fragments and musical phrases, in which the explicit communication, or a precise interpretation of the texts, is secondary to the attempts of expressing the very subjective feelings that arise when reading Hesse’s words.

The opening is sung without words, except for a theme-fantasy called “Liebeslied”, which uses some central text fragments from Das Glasperlenspiel as well as the melodic material in its original intervallic form (borrowed from a toccata of Johann Sebastian Bach). In unison with the double bass, the vocal part continues with rhythmified singing and recitation of passages from Zu einer Toccata von Bach, interrupted by verses of Das Glasperlenspiel where a flowing melodic line characterizes the double bass – vivid and brilliant in its dialogue with the singer who more calmly contemplates on fragments and phonemes from the text. Here, a third character is introduced through the voice of the bass player who, like a listener from the ‘outside world’, tries to imitate the erudite scholar with a monotonous but clear articulation. Unable to fully grasp what is expressed, he ends up producing an unredeemed caricature of the voice of the ‘Magister’.

The double bass part is based on improvisations and re-writings of phrases from the music of Scodanibbio, which were subsequently organized in rhythmical structures according to the numerical series derived from the text. Many of these inspirational phrases of Scodanibbio are found in his work Due pezzi brillianti, which exhibit a perpetuum mobile that I wanted to transform into a more free and improvisational character. A general comparison between the flowing vividness of the rhythms and the brilliant expression of Scodanibbio, and the transformation into my own ideas, can be seen in examples 1 and 2. An immanent paradox is that while the breathing music of Scodanibbio originally belongs to an intuitive creative process, the music in the sections of “Das Glasperlenspiel”, being strictly organized in structures, actually prevails a greater sounding expression of freedom and rhythmical flow.

Ex. 1. Due pezzi brillanti, from page 2

Ex. 2. Glasperlenspiel, page 5, line 5, and page 6, line 1-4

On the last line in example 2 we can see a pulsating drone, using enharmonic sounding flageolets on the G and D-string, that is inspired from Scodanibbio’s writing, as illustrated in the following:

Ex. 3. Due pezzi brillanti, page 6, line 2

Another example of shifts of enharmonic tones between two strings is seen in example 4, where the two last tones in each triplet are either in unison or octave relations. The glissando movement is inspired by the artificial harmonics glissandi seen in example 5.

Ex. 4. Glasperlenspiel, page 10, line 2

Ex. 5. Due pezzi brillanti, page 4, line 2-3

A signature of movement and sound, a real trademark characteristic so to speak of Scodanibbio’s playing is in my opinion displayed in example 6. A slow arpeggio sweeps over the strings, mixing harmonics with ordinary tones to create a harmonic spectrum which, in the normal tuning of perfect fourths, also enables intervals of thirds, minor seconds and augmented fourths, all within the differing dimensions of the pitches. As Wolfgang Korb writes about Due pezzi brillanti: “…these two ‘brilliant pieces’ combines rapid, initially brief runs of (normally sounding) tones with arpeggiated or dotted figures made up of harmonics – constantly interrupted by brief caesuras that seem to mark a new ‘approach’ each time. These brief alternating sound shapes are then connected together into longer chains of notes that constantly change between fundamental and overtone spectra”.

Ex. 6. Due pezzi brillanti, page 3, line 2

And then my own interpretation of the above phrase:

Ex. 7. Glasperlenspiel, page 12, line 4

As a contrast to the flowing legato multitude in the sections of “Das Glasperlenspiel”, rapid cascades of repeating notes appear in a virtuosic staccato, in double stops where the stopped notes circle around the flageolet pedal tone. Also here we can see an incremental inn and out movement of consonant and dissonant harmonies. By comparing examples 8 and 9 one can see my own extended version of Scodanibbio’s original musical and technical idea.

Ex. 8. Due pezzi brillanti, page 7, line 5

Ex. 9. Glasperlenspiel, page 6, line 1-2

A musical synthesis of the material from both main sections of the piece (“Das Glasperlenspiel” and “Zu einer Toccata von Bach”) marks the ending of the last “Das Glasperlenspiel” verse, followed by another appearance of the “Liebeslied theme” – this time as a solo double bass fantasy – that transits into the last verse of Zu einer Toccata von Bach. Here, the music radically changes character. Aphoristic utterances echo into textures of floating consonant and dissonant harmonies. The ‘listener’ now approaches a possible understanding of the text, and lets the reverberating music colour his interpretation. Towards the end, as the music gradually consolidates the past and present and resolves into its old shape, the initial Bach melody leads into the final and quiescent “Liebeslied”.

Example 10 shows the opening of Glasperlenspiel. The double bass passage is played pizzicato with both hands, where the upward note-stems indicate left-hand pizzicato (marked in blue) and the downward note-stems indicate right-hand pizzicato (marked in green). The rhythm on the middle staff-line indicates the summed rhythm of both hands, for the ease of reading.

Ex. 10. Glasperlenspiel, page 1, line 1

The virtuosic two-hand flageolet pizzicato technique was developed and perfected by Scodanibbio. The side of each thumb is placed over the harmonic nodes in thumb position, left-hand usually covering the two upper strings, being plucked with the index and ring finger, and right-hand covering the two lower strings, being plucked with the first and index finger. The most complex usage by Scodanibbio of the two-hand flageolet pizzicato can be heard in the third part, called Voyage Interrupted, of his monumental work Voyage that never ends (1979-1997). This piece was never notated, but a similar usage of the technique constitutes the sixth movement, Farewell, of his Sei studi from 1981. Similarly improvised, the score of this movement suggest only fragments of patterns that can be used.

Ex. 11. Details from Farewell, the 6.movement from Sei studi

My particular notation of the flageolet pizzicato technique is a variation of Scodanibbio’s writing from Sequenza XIVb, as seen in example 12. Contrary to the notation in his early works, the hands are here notated on the same staff. Already in the beginning of the work he introduces a new variation of the flageolet pizzicato, imitating the Sri Lankan Kandyan drum, by drumming on the body of the bass at the same time as playing flageolet pizzicato. The introduction continues with flageolet pizzicato in both right and left hand, before entering a passage that resembles the rhythm and sound of the tabla drum.

Ex. 12. Sequenza XIVb, page 1, with markings

The purple arrow in example 10 points to a right-hand pizzicato multiphonics. The thumb is placed on the side of the string and simultaneously released while being plucked hard with the index finger. This should produce a complex sound consisting of the fingered harmonic, the surrounding harmonics and the fundamental. In example 13, we see another detail where the purple arrow points to the right-hand pizzicato multiphonics.

Ex. 13. Glasperlenspiel, page 11, line 5

A distinctive pizzicato figuration, which appears at several spots during the pizzicato sections, deserves a special notice. The figure, shown in example 14, mixes all of the pizzicato techniques constituting the sections; left-hand hammer-on and pull-off, and flageolet and multiphonics pizzicato.

Ex. 14. Glasperlenspiel, page 9, line 2

The red box in example 15 surrounds a “percussive” pizzicato figuration “à la Boivin” which I describe later in the illustrations from Shared moments. The figurations used in Glasperlenspiel are the same as in Shared moments, except that the percussive knock on the body of the bass has been completely replaced by pizzicato multiphonics on the 4-6th harmonic partial on the A-string. Still, the figure remains its repetative percussive function, although the pizzicato multiphonics provided a more tonal sound to the figure. The figure always ends the pizzicato sections of Glasperlenspiel, for example as shown in bar 125-126 of example 15.

Ex 15. Glasperlenspiel, page 12, line 1 and 2

The last part of Glasperlenspiel, the whole third verse of Zu einer toccata von Bach, is constructed on the idea of the text being recited with the accompaniment of percussive harmonies on the double bass. After each recited phrase, the music echoes into a line that changes between consonant and dissonant harmonies. The pitches and rhythms of this whole section are organized from number rows generated from the text and applied on melodic fragments from a Bach toccata.

The echoing harmonies are formed using double stops on the double bass, consisting of a harmonic or an ordinary tone and an artificial harmonic, together with overtone singing in the voice. In this way, I try to create a heterogeneous, floating chordal sound between the double bass and the voice. The chordal passage seen in example 16 is extended by a rhythmical pattern, and the harmony changes only slightly through glissandos in the beginning and end of the passage. The accompaniment of the recited text (bar 169), where the two-hand pizzicato techniques are used, is notated on a system of two staffs, the upper staff for the right hand and the lower for the left hand, in order to make the reading of the actions clear. Multiphonics pizzicato are used both on a natural harmonic (7th partial on the A-string) and on an artificial harmonic (4th partial from the C fundamental).

Ex. 16. Glasperlenspiel, page 15, line 5

Another example of the writing in this section is illustrated in example 17, where a complex harmonic line extends over five bars, accentuated by the rhythm and also to a certain extent coloured by melodic fragments.

Ex. 17. Glasperlenspiel, page 15, line 2 and 3