BY AUDREY KELLEY
“First we have the ‘Bellingham’ chord, then that gets cut short,” composer Benjamin Dean Taylor described to me last month over the phone when I called to learn more about his commissioned work for the Bellingham Festival of Music 2017 season. He continued on, “then suddenly, there’s the ‘Palmer’ chord…”
If you’re suddenly dying to know what “Bellingham chords” and “Palmer chords” are and what they sound like, then you know how I felt at that moment in our interview.
Taylor made his Bellingham Festival of Music debut during the 2015 season when Maestro Michael Palmer programmed his orchestral work Worlds Without End. Last season, the composer attended Calidore String Quartet rehearsals and their performance with the Festival orchestra of Suite Latina by Juan Ramírez Hernández. During that time he talked with the quartet about their hopes for this new commission for the 2017 season. “In general they were very open to what I wanted to write,” he said. “They did ask that it be something that hopefully could have a long life, which of course is something [as a composer] you always want to hear.”
2017 commission: “the musical equivalent of a fly-over of Bellingham…”
The commission, titled Aurum Tetra, will have its world premiere July 1, 2017. Comprised of three movements, the work opens with what the composer describes as the musical equivalent of “a grand aerial view of Bellingham.” Taylor uses lush orchestration and the full forces of the orchestra for the opening. Rich, open quartal and quintal harmonies (the interval of a fourth alludes to the four players of the string quartet) are layered with grooving, rhythmic melodies with moments highlighting trumpet with the quartet (the composer’s primary instrument is trumpet). “It’s the musical equivalent of a fly-over of Bellingham,” he told me.
But back to the ‘Bellingham’ and ‘Palmer’ chords. To understand what they are and how they provide significant and dramatic arrival points as well as structural underpinnings in the piece, we need to detour for a moment to discuss musical cryptograms.
Musical cryptograms – what does your name sound like in music?
A cryptogram is coded text containing a hidden message or symbol. When creating a cryptogram in music, equivalence between letters of the alphabet and pitches of the musical scale is straightforward enough to code for A through G, but the musical alphabet contains only those seven letters. Therefore it becomes necessary for composers to stretch their creativity in order to encode people, places and other extra-musical information into their music, a practice which has been going on since the Renaissance. To find out what simple musical cryptogram the letters of your name would make, try this simple musical cryptogram generator.
In German music, B-flat is just B
To further explain how composers employ creative techniques to code cryptograms, here’s a very brief German music theory lesson: the pitch name for E-flat in German is Es (pronounced like the letter S), B-natural is H, and B-flat is just B. Confused yet? One of the most well known musical cryptograms which makes use of these is the famous BACH motif, where B-A-C-H becomes B-flat, A, C, and B-natural. Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich famously used the German scheme to code his abbreviated name D-S-C-H (using the German spelling) into many works, written as the pitches D, E-flat, C, and B-natural). Schumann used S-C-H-A (E-flat, C, B-natural, A), and Brahms used letters from his name B-A-H-S (B-flat, A, B-natural, E-flat) in his A-flat minor organ fugue.
For additional reading on musical cryptograms, this article by musicologist and musical cryptology expert Eric Sams provides many additional examples and in-depth information.
There are no steadfast rules for musical cryptogram writing however, and Taylor let his creativity run wild. He described to me, sounding a bit like a mad scientist, how he drew inspiration from the quartet’s name—Calidore (oro is gold in Italian), and connected that to “the word aurum, [which is] Latin for gold.” So he created a cryptogram for the quartet as well as a progression of four chords: C, A, D, and E—drawn from the letters of Calidore that have a musical pitch equivalent. “As it turns out” he laughed, “it’s a really cool sound.” If you can forgive the pun, it’s safe to say we’ve “struck gold” with this commission.
The ‘Bellingham’ and ‘Palmer’ cryptogram (“it works out to be F Major #11,” he explained) chords are, in the composer’s words, “pillar harmonies of the piece.” The latter is derived from letters of the name of our Artistic Director Michael Palmer, and serves as an important unifying structural element. The music is not secondary to process, however. Taylor described his use of musical cyphering as a sort of “creative lubricant,” while always being “guided by sound.”
For the slower, more reflective middle movement he was inspired by the traditional hymn For the Beauty of the Earth, which he transformed and deconstructed using methods such as metric modulation.
Taylor’s use of subtext and symbolism can also be found in his use of a scherzo-style movement at the end of the piece—an homage to traditional orchestral forms.
Scherzi and the influence of levity
When he first met the members of Calidore String Quartet it was in the confined space of Bellingham Festival Chair Karen Berry’s family truck. The Berry’s truck has been a long-time Bellingham Festival friend (I’ve driven it myself a few times), transporting everything from choral risers to coolers, heavy pallets full of festival programs, and on this day, Ben Taylor and the members of Calidore along with their instruments. “Someone asked if my wife and I have any children,” Ben described to me. He replied they have four boys (ages 8, 6, 4 and 2), “And that’s when the truck just…exploded in an uproar…I mean, they were delighted, but they just couldn’t believe it.”
Taylor observed that having a large family with young children has directly resulted in a lot of playfulness in his music. As for how that relates back to his scherzo movement, scherzo in Italian means “joke.” Composers have been using the word in titles and descriptions all the way back to the early baroque period; Monteverdi’s Scherzi Musicali collection was published around the mid-17th century. “Having a large family with kids, you have to have a lot of playfulness and humor, and that’s something I incorporate into my music…it’s also serious, it’s my art, but I do this because it’s so much fun.”
While talking with the composer about his upcoming commitments, it became evident we were very smart to have booked him when we did, as he is contracted out through next year and beyond to compose works spanning a broad range of genres and instrumentation. From a euphonium solo with accompanying electronics to a large-scale high school band piece as well as an In Memoriam work commissioned to mark the passing of a prominent Colorado music educator, saying he’s “busy” is a bit of an understatement. When he’s not composing, Taylor can be found performing as a jazz trumpeter in his own New Orleans-style jazz band dubbed “Mr. Taylor and his Dirty Dixie Band,” teaching in his private studio, or working in the Blue Dot Collective, a group of five composers focused on writing adventurous new music for wind band.
Tickets to this world premiere
The world premiere of Aurum Tetra, featuring the Calidore String Quartet and the Bellingham Festival Orchestra, is July 1, 2017 at 7:30PM at the Western Washington University Performing Arts Center. Reserve tickets online at bellinghamfestival.org/tickets; over the phone by calling the WWU Box Office at (360) 650-6146; or via email: email@example.com.
Audrey Kelley is Festival Coordinator and Production Manager for the Bellingham Festival of Music. She holds a Master’s degree in Music Composition from Western Washington University.