2003; 3*.2.2.2*-; 20′

Commissioned and premiered 22 Feb 2003, Musica 2000, Rosalind Erwin. Further performances Musica 2000, Sofia Philharmonic.



Short Program Notes

This work is based on the vision of the prophet Ezekiel, as recorded in the first chapter of his book. His account of the four creatures, the wheels, how they looked and moved, the sounds they made, and his response, inspired this musical depiction. The Hebrew letters of the text have been manipulated to generate musical pitches, and those have become the basis for the composition.

Long Program Notes

This work is based on the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel, the account of the prophet’s vision of the four creatures, the wings, the wheels, the fire, the throne. Verses 16 and 17 were the inspiration for the musical setting of the chapter: “The appearance of the wheels and their workmanship was like the color of beryl, and all four of them looked alike, their appearance and their workmanship as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. As they went, they went in any of their four directions, without turning as they went.”

In addition to an introduction and Coda, there are 28 sections, corresponding to the 28 verses of the chapter (although sections 4 and 27 involve repeated material). All of the pitches in this work, except for the Coda, are generated from the letters of the Hebrew text. A system was devised converting the letters into numbers, and from there to musical notes. The first letters of words provide most of the pitches, and certain words ending in Hebrew finals, which are special forms of certain letters, take on added significance. These words provide more pitches, and sometimes an underlying tonality.

Musical decisions based on the sense of the text, rather than any further systematizing, guided the handling of whatever pitches presented themselves. Word and letter order were not followed slavishly, but were manipulated as the music seemed to suggest. However, the integrity of the individual Hebrew sentences, which correspond to the verses (except for 8 and 9, which are one sentence), was always honored. The sentences provided their own tonal centers, which were followed from sentence to sentence, however they led. Sometimes tonal centers are strong, sometimes not.

For example, the short verse 2 has a tonal center on A-flat in this scheme. There are eight words in the Hebrew text of this verse, the first letters of each yielding the pitches E-flat, G, two A’s, and four B-flats. In addition, two of the words end in finals, and the letters of those words yield E-flat, three G’s, A-flat, B-flat, two B’s, and D-flat. Those are the pitches used in section 2. The B-flats and G’s were stressed since there were so many of them, and consequently the tonality on A-flat is hardly there. Plus, although the first three verses yield tonal centers on A, A-flat, and D, the bass F was drawn out from the introduction all the way to verse 4, since the form suggested a break there. So, in this case, the individual tonal centers are subordinated even more.

Any of the musical decisions could have been made differently, depending on how the text or scheme was manipulated. For example, the entire text yields a tonal center on F if every letter is added individually according to this system, but B-flat if every word is added individually. So the work starts in F and switches to B-flat at the Coda. It does end in F as it begins, but with the feeling now of F as the dominant of B-flat rather than its own tonic, as if something were to follow. This resonates strongly with the end of the text: “I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one who spoke.”

The proportions of the golden mean (given two unequal parts, the ratio of the small to the large equals that of the large to the whole) shape the composition. The primary division occurs at verse 20, and the resulting sections are likewise further divided a number of times (all of the sections are marked with indents in the English translation that follows). One of the delights of working in this way is to discover how the text breaks itself down into these sections, and to find ways to make musical decisions accordingly. The gathering of verses 1-3 into one section, mentioned above, comes directly out of this rendering. Instrument designations inserted into the text serve only as signposts to help in following the music; the instruments have no symbolic importance in themselves.

Martin Luther’s “Holy, holy, holy” from his Sanctus setting is the basis for the Coda.

Text of Ezekiel, Chapter 1

[Introduction, Sandblocks]

1 [Cellos] Now it came about in the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, that while I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. 2 [add Violins 2] On the fifth day of the month, which was the fifth year of king Jehoiachin’s captivity, 3 [Violins 1, Violas] the word of the Lord came expressly to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar, and there the hand of the Lord came upon him.

4 [Moving ahead slightly, Solo Violin] And as I looked, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud with fire flashing out and surrounded by bright light, and in its midst something like glowing metal in the midst of the fire. 5 [Piccolo] And in the midst of it was the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had the likeness of a man. 6 [muted Trumpet] Each one had four faces, and each one had four wings. 7 [Xylophone chords] Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like a calf’s foot; and they gleamed like the color of burnished bronze.

8 [Oboe, Horn] And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides. All four of them had faces and wings, 9 [add Winds, Xylophone] and their wings touched one another. They did not turn when they went; each one went straight forward. 10 [Brass] As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man, all four had the face of a lion on the right side and the face of an ox on the left side, and all four had the face of an eagle. 11 [Flutes] Such were their faces. Their wings were stretched upward; each one had two wings touching another, and two covering their bodies.

12 [Faster, pizzicato Strings] And each one went straight forward; wherever the spirit was about to go, they went; without turning when they went. 13 [Brass, Solo Violin] As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches moving up and down among the living creatures; the fire was bright, and out of the fire flashed forth lightning. 14 [Xylophone] And the living creatures ran back and forth like flashes of lightning. 15 [Timpani, Basses] Now, as I looked at the living creatures, behold, there was one wheel on the earth by each creature with its four faces.

16 [Piccolo] The appearance of the wheels and their workmanship was like the color of beryl, and all four of them looked alike, their appearance and their workmanship as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel. 17 [Clarinet] As they went, they went in any of their four directions, without turning as they went.

18 [Violins, Violas, Trumpets] As for their rims, they were so high that they were dreadful, and the rims of all four of them were full of eyes all around. 19 [All] And whenever the living creatures went, the wheels went with them, and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose.

20 [Faster, Timpani] Wherever the spirit was about to go, they went, there was their spirit to go; and the wheels rose with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. 21 [Violas, Horns] When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. 22 [Maracas] Over the heads of the living creatures was something like an expanse, like the awesome gleam of ice, stretched out over their heads. 23 [Xylophone] And under the expanse their wings were straight, one toward the other; and each one had two covering its body on one side and on the other. 24 [Brass, Percussion] And when they went, I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of great waters, like the voice of the Almighty, the voice of speech, like the noise of an army; when they stood still, they lowered their wings.

25 [Solo Violin] And there came a voice from above the expanse that was over their heads, when they stood still and had lowered their wings. 26 [Double Basses] And above the expanse that was over their heads was something like a throne, looking like sapphire; and on that which looked like a throne, above it, was a figure that looked like a man. 27 [Strings] And I saw something like glowing metal from his loins upward, like fire all around within it, and something like fire from his loins downward, and a radiance all around.

28 [Piccolo, Tuba, etc.] Like the appearance of the rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the radiance all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one who spoke.

[Coda, Chimes]

Converting Hebrew text to pitches
My goal was a system that equitably used all the notes and all the letters, and that had some relation to the acoustics of tonality. Any music that disregards this relation does so at its peril, I believe, as it devolves into mere mathematical process, the further it removes itself from the acoustical world. Music, after all, must always move, and motion, whether it be harmonic or melodic, exists only if a tonal center can be perceived by the listener. There is no movement without a center.

How to fit the 12 notes of the chromatic scale into the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet then became the task. But in addition to these letters are five finals, or special forms of certain letters. The finals carry great significance in Jewish mystic tradition, and I thought that they should not be overlooked. That made 27 letters. However, three letters—aleph, mem, shin—are considered so important that they are revered as “mother” letters in the tradition of the mystics. If I could account for these in some other way, I would have 24 letters to which I could assign the numbers 1–12 two times over. This numerological matching of numbers to letters is a normal part of Jewish meditation tradition, although that tradition is based on 10.

I decided to assign the mother letters a numerical value of zero. Aleph has such pride of place that it actually rules the entire system, as I explain below. And since aleph, mem (and its final), and shin occur so frequently in Hebrew texts, this would give greater voice to some of the other, lesser-used, letters. The base-12 alphanumeric conversion then becomes:

aleph 0, bet 1, gimmel 2, dalet 3, heh 4, vav 5, zayin 6, het 7, tet 8, yod 9, khaf 10, lamed 11, mem 0, nun 12, samekh 1, ayin 2, peh 3, tzadi 4, kuf 5, resh 6, shin 0, tav 7, final khaf 8, final mem 9, final nun 10, final peh 11, final tzadi 12

I assign numbers rather than pitches to the letters, since here is where the overtone series, the “acoustics of tonality” I mentioned above, is introduced. Thus, in C, for instance, 1 (the lowest fundamental)=C; 2 (the next highest fundamental)=G; 3=E; 4=Bb; and so on up to 12=Db. Each letter’s pitch, then, is determined by its context, or by what overtone series it exists in. Zayin (6) in a B context would translate to E, but in the context of G it becomes C. We can make the context as broad or as narrow as we wish; in setting large blocks of text each verse can be its own tonal center, or we could also use a word by itself and relate each letter to it.

It seemed natural to use the first letter, aleph, as the ultimate context. Aleph is throughout tradition the beginning, the A. So, we can add up the letters of any sentence, calculate our numbers by adding and reducing, and using A as the prime context come up with pitches. For instance, the Hebrew letters of Psalm 46:1, “Elohim lanu makhase vaoz ezra v’tsarot nimtsa m’od” (God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble), totals 146, which by base-12 reduction equals 11 (1+4+6). In A, 11=C, so the tonal center of that verse is C. The first word’s letters of aleph-lamed-heh-yod-final mem, yielding the numbers 0-11-4-9-9, become, in C, the pitches (none)-Ab-Eb-D-D, ours to use as we wish. If we wanted to take it further, the first word’s reduction itself becomes 6, which in the context of C is F. We could use that as a sub-tonality and relate its letters to F if we chose. Since this word ends in a final, I would give its tonal center more weight than other words in the sentence.

In viewing the choices that went into inventing this, it must be obvious that I claim no mystical or extra-musical significance of any kind to this system. There is no apparatus that can create spirituality, let alone music. This is simply a way to generate notes. But one of the joys of working in this fashion is in having one’s attention driven to the text, rather than to one’s interpretation of that text, and indeed, this was the purpose behind my investigation—to see how far I could allow the text to speak for itself. It is true that we never eliminate interpretation, but by using this system, the compositional process itself becomes a form of meditation. This, I believe, benefits not only the composer or anyone wishing to study the music, but also performers and listeners, who will know at least that every note is chosen with a great deal of reverence to the text.