Sunday, September 18, 2011

Circle of Love: Violinist Dorothy Martirano

The topic of the moment in Starr Review is love and its expression by some contemporary artists whom I love. Love permeates art, even when a particular art form seems at first encounter obscure or baffling. It’s a theme, like death or grief, birth or response to nature, which, if kept in mind, can clear the path and lead us into art we didn’t think we could navigate.
Morgan Powell, Sal and Dorothy Martirano 
Dorothy Martirano; her late husband, composer Salvatore Martirano; and composer Morgan Powell, are all prominent in what has variously been called "New Music," “contemporary music,” and “contemporary chamber music.” “New Music,” which I'll use for simplicity's sake, is nevertheless a pesky term, by which a lot of people mean a lot of things. Most of these make lovers of Dowland, Bach, Beethoven, and Ellington wince. This tends to happen when the word “new” precedes the name of any art form.

One way to describe New Music is by the effect it has on many of us, familiars of “old music.” New Music often surprises our expectations based on classical music. Contemporary music may use sounds that haven’t been considered musical (for instance, blown PVC pipes) or are borrowed from other cultures (the electrified oud) or result from new uses of traditional instruments (a bassoon played on reed and neck, without its body). New music uses experimental structures or demanding instrumental techniques, non-Western tuning systems, or extended silence. 

Not all of these devices are actually new, but they don't turn up frequently in standard repertory.

Sometimes we find contemporary art unknowable, nonsensical, or even assaultive. It raises the old cultural ambivalence about artists: Are they heroes? Or tricksters and bullies? That ambivalence triggers the response we have discussed in the previous post, making audience members feel like outsiders, excluded by the very art experience they’ve been invited to. People unaccustomed to new music end up thinking of the composers and performers as hostile Others.

We recognize, though, that the wish to be annoying won’t keep most composers in a studio for ten hours a day, or pursuing the dream of hearing their music played to an appreciative house. So while their listeners may find the work of contemporary composers disconcerting or noisy, it's worthwhile to keep trying. They may be struck to discover the human in the work, the way contemporary music touches emotions never tapped by the traditional and familiar, or that it elicits ideas that never before had any core around which to form.

Dorothy Martirano, Violinist, Wife and Helpmeet

Dorothy Martirano, 2011
Dorothy Martirano is a violinist whose talents and catholic interests find her playing in symphony orchestras and bluegrass bands; equally happy improvising in most kinds of music you can name. Jazz, classical, blues, new music--just no bluegrass. She lives in Urbana, Illinois, where she’s a member of the rich scene surrounding the University of Illinois, were her late husband, the polymath composer, Salvatore Martirano, was a dynamic, inspiring colleague and professor. (See a brief biography of Martirano.)

Dorothy Martirano specializes in contemporary music and in artistic collaborations—in 2009 she premiered both a work for solo violin, and one for violin, tape, and dancer. Over the years, she’s performed in North, Central, and South America, in Europe, and Asia, most recently in France, Italy, and Thailand. She’s been a guest performer at the University of Chicago, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s New Music Series, the Knitting Factory and Roulette in New York. She’s a regular guest with the Tone Road Ramblers improvisational sextet.

Home in Urbana, Martirano is the core player in a tango group (Tangotta), a gypsy-flavored accordion group (Almost A) and two improvisational music and dance ensembles. She also loves playing with one of her sons, “a remarkable funk bass player!” 

She was the concertmistress of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony for over twenty years, and has played with several other classical ensembles in the Midwest.

For ten years when she was raising her small children, Martirano didn’t even own a fiddle. She cared for the children, managed a 24-hour household, and taught strings in the public schools as the wife of Salvatore Martirano. During his own remarkable career, Dorothy’s well-known composer husband, Professor at the University of Illinois, wrote works that ranged from sacred works (Mass, New World Records B003Z2OTSO) to multi-media performance pieces of scathing satire (L’s GA, sound sampled) to the masterwork for sextet, Thrown, commissioned by the Tone Road Ramblers and played for the 1984 Olympics. At Illinois, his involvement during the ‘60s with the pioneering electronic music laboratory (Experimental Music Studio) led Martirano to his invention of the SalMar construction, a machine for composing music.
Martirano at the SalMar

The enormous SalMar, with its 24 suspended, 6-pound speakers that swayed to the motion of sound waves, was installed in the living quarters of the Martirano home. Energetic and gregarious, Martirano liked to have his students to the house for jam sessions that could last until breakfast time, commencing well after Dorothy had put their children and herself to bed. Like many women artists with world-class talents, she was a patient and loving wife and mother.

Around 1987, Martirano replaced the SalMar with a more flexible, state-of-the-art invention he called the yahaSALmaMAC MIDI construction. This was an interactive computer and synthesizer, a composing machine with 24 tracks. He recorded (“sampled”) sounds—complex, organic sounds that became the voices he composed with in lieu of orchestral instruments. Martirano’s machine was designed so that he could even improvise with it in real time, just as one would with any standard (and less complicated) instrument. Into the electronics of the construction was attached a Zeta electric violin.

Dorothy and Salvatore Martirano on Zeta violin and yahaSALmaMAC
In 1985, Martirano wrote a duet for Dorothy titled “SAMPLER: Everything Goes When the Whistle Blows.” Its instrumentation is Zeta violin and yahaSALmaMAC. In this sample from “SAMPLER” you’ll hear the characteristic well-controlled size and drama of Martirano’s writing. It invites any imagery that forms in the listener’s mind.

Consider that Martirano is writing with 24 sound units, none of which are simple tones. When he orchestrates, each element is in itself complex, so in layering them, he can create sound as great as a Wagnerian orchestra, with power to spare. Don’t try to count it out. Think about the kinds of sounds that he uses. These are not "electronic" sounds for the most part; some seem, in fact, to be natural. Whatever you hear, you hear correctly, even if it surprises you. This is the opening of the work. The violin is present from the first note.

You can listen HERE
This and the following sample are from CDCM Computer Music Series, Vol. 3: Experimental Music Studios and Computer Music Project at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Centaur Records, 1989, CRC 2045. Used by permission.

It’s not music to inspire foot-tapping. Rather, it places the listener’s whole body under a waterfall, in a torrent, in a windstorm of sound and sensation. Like a wind, it doesn’t need our judgment, only our willingness to refuse being overwhelmed so we can be present for the experience.

The wide-ranging musical enthusiasms that drove Salvatore Martirano’s composition included jazz, with which he was constantly involved. He and his fellow composer, faculty colleague, and friend, Morgan Powell, formed the Late Night Jazz Quintet in 1978, playing in Urbana clubs and on the road.

In these final 4 minutes of the work, we get a further sense of Martirano's eclecticism and the abandon of his style when he sets Dorothy loose on this jazz mad dash.

Listen HERE

The violin line cuts through SAMPLER like a saber. Dorothy Martirano’s playing is fast, furious, and flexible, as the music changes dynamics and form from symphonic to jazz. Her playing stands out not only for its crispness, but for its passion. She attacks notes as if with her whole body, scratches as if with sharpened nails. She pushes the tempos like a pile driver, like an engine speeding to daylight and the tunnel’s end.

If we think about a loving expression from composer to wife, “SAMPLER” might not pop to mind: no lush strings sustaining long lines of major chords. Though Martirano’s work may be Romantic in size, it doesn’t sound like it would pull the heartstrings of most wives.

But who is the woman he’s writing for? She’s been willing to inhabit traditional feminine roles: She’s raising the children, being a housewife and hostess, and supporting a husband whose talents, personality, and expression are all enormous. That is, she’s a loving and flexible woman with the power of self-control that benefits everyone around her, leaving them free to pursue what they want.

This music acknowledges her power not only as the midwife to others’ concerns, but it acknowledges that she is equal to those to whom she lends her support. She has the force and talent to play the hell out of her husband’s daunting music. She’s a complete artistic partner to him, no matter how many socks she washes or parties she throws. She is strong, present, and equal. “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments.” "SAMPLER" is music of love as homage, tribute and recognition that there are no impediments, at least for this woman. 

The Martiranos and Morgan Powell

Morgan Powell, photo Patricia Hruby-Powell
Composer Morgan Powell has been a friend of the Martiranos for as long as he's been in in Urbana. During the mid-‘60s, he was Salvatore Martirano’s graduate student, soon to become a faculty colleague. They spent the rest of their careers together in the Department of Theory and Composition. Salvatore’s early death at age 68 in 1995 didn’t leave his widow alone; her friendship with Powell has continued in the form of many musical collaborations in groups like Tone Road Ramblers, Compost Q, and Spinnin’ Slidin’ Scratchin’. 

In 1999, Powell composed “Sonny’s Songs,” a violin solo for Dorothy Martirano (“Sonny” was a nickname for Salvatore).

It conveys grief for the death of his friend, the husband of his friend, the wife. "Sonny's Songs is for Dorothy in the extra sense that no one else has played it or is likely to, given the extraordinary demands of performing it.

As “SAMPLER” strikes the listener as an unusual expression of marital love until we think deeply about the details of an artist couple in a day-to-day, gendered life; so “Sonny’s Songs” may seem at first unrecognizable as an expression of grieving over a loved one. Again, we expect sorrow to sound a certain way, to be lodged in minor chords, lento tempi, and crescendos and decrescendos that imitate sobs released or swallowed.

But if we imagine the actual rather than the stereotyped processes of mourning, “Sonny’s Songs” makes gut-level, intuitive sense. Grief is an assemblage of attitudes, emotions, and actions that include body and mind, affect and action. There’s anger, guilt, regret, relief, even giddiness. We cry, stare, curse, and our moods are volatile. Our emotions are unruly. Think of this while you listen to Powell’s “Sonny’s Songs,” performed by Dorothy Martirano.

You can listen HERE 
Recorded at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, University of Illinois, 2000; produced by James Staley and Morgan Powell.

If you can understand being “cracked up,” “broken,” or “laid low,” by grief you can feel the sorrow, rage, and full spectrum of emotion in Powell’s work. Ironically, in its visits to the extremes—the highs and lows of dynamics and the instrument’s voice range—“Sonny’s Songs” seems to play tribute to  Martirano’s largeness of  expression, even without the huge orchestration. Another compositional device that may add to the sense of emotional breakage is a structure that embeds many of Martirano’s favorite  tunes, “There Will Never Be Another You,” which we saw above. Another is “Stella by Starlight,” the basis for Martirano’s “Stuck on Stella.” Even those the quotations aren't recognizable by most, using around twenty tunes in an 8-minute work adds to a sense of lost balance.
Powell and Martirano mourn a mutual loss—if different in nature, yet mutual in degree. So it’s a work that not only mourns the death, but also the heavy work of experiencing grief and continuing to act. While I think “Sonny’s Songs” is a breathtaking piece of music and a profound human expression, it works on yet another level for those who have the good luck to see Martirano perform it live.

Martirano says that it took her over a year to learn to play “Sonny’s Songs”—that she almost gave up, in fact, despite her consultations with Powell about the parameters of  instrumental technique. The physical effort it requires of the violinist is impressively evident in Martirano’s performance, which forces her to be in continual, jerky movement, like a marionette—or like the rickety skeletal figure in a Totentanz. A video shot at the Marshall University Festival of New Music in February 2011 gives some idea of this, though the camera distance and placement show it to less spectacular effect than in person.

Of playing “Sonny’s Songs,” Martirano has said that it took her a long time to come to a true emotional awareness of the work because it is so difficult. That difficulty may in fact be functional for her. It may have initially provided a way for her to negotiate the depth and power of emotion, at the same time that performing the work still appears to force an exorcism of grief, to be a dance that shakes rough energy out of her body, something that drains her to limpness.

Powell and Martirano, 2011 Marshall University
New Music Festival
With “Sonny’s Songs,” Powell lets us in on an intimate expression of love and lamentation for one particular Salvatore Martirano, who died. Herein lies the generosity of art. We in the public never knew this musician, husband, colleague and friend. But as we find ourselves joining his mourners, and as we experience their grief through this passionately played music, the piquant memorial begins to suggest the life of Martirano and his art.

Anybody's sorrow makes us reflect on our own. But “Sonny’s Songs” reconstitutes and expands the idea of what grief looks and feels and sounds like, just as “SAMPLER” gives us another way to understand love as homage and full acknowledgment. Both of these works come from the human heart, from experience of people in real situations.

Would you know this just by listening to this music without the background I've written? Perhaps not. But would you get farther with this music assuming that the images it brings to your mind are a suitable starting place? That your first reactions aren't wrong or irrelevant? That the composer’s emotional palette and yours may be similar? And, of course, will you find it more accessible by considering that the composer considers him or herself to be doing something valid and important, worthy of your greatly coveted attention?

I think you can go far with assumptions like that. I think they can loosen your imagination and sharpen your receptivity.

Give it a whirl, and we’ll keep talking.

With many thanks to Thomas A. Johnson and Sarah A. Hippensteele of AshImage for very patient technical assistance.

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