A Tune Refracted
solo harp, wind ensemble
Premiered by Northwestern University Contemporary Music Ensemble with Keryn Wouden, harp and John Zastoupil, conductor; March 7, 2012, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
A Tune Refracted is based on “Farewell to Music,” a Celtic harp tune attributed to Irish harper Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738), who is remembered in Irish oral tradition as a larger-than-life mythic character. From a musicological perspective, the tune shows the influence of both traditional Irish harp playing and the Italian Baroque music that was popular in Ireland at the time. The blurry boundaries between mythic cultural memory and historical reality prompt the question: to what extent is the legend that has grown up around O’Carolan based on the “real” man or on the cultural interests of those who preserved his memory? How did a tune that reflects international cultural miscegenation become a symbol of Irish cultural pride?
A Tune Refracted thus examines questions raised by the source tune itself about the boundaries of musical style and the integrity of memory-objects within the fluidity of oral tradition. The tune “Farewell to Music” is time-stretched so that it lasts approximately 11 minutes. Slowed beyond recognition as the piece begins, it gradually accelerates to a plausible performance tempo by the end of the piece. As the tune traverses its degrees of time-stretching, it plays different roles in the construction of the music: cantus firmus, generator of harmonic spectra and durations, canvas for ornamentation, heterophonic melody, source of gesture types, etc. Thus the tune may seem to appear or disappear, as different degrees of time-stretch suggest realizing it within a musical style other than its own, which is already the product of multiple cultural forces. Is this piece, then, a version of the tune, “about” the tune, or a separate work with its own musical concerns, or all of the above?