Capricious Apparitions

by  Paul Elwood

Capricious Apparitions, for two violas and bowed banjo by Paul Elwood

(Commissioned by Juliet White-Smith, Professor of Viola, University of Northern Colorado, for premiere at the 2009 International Viola Congress with Timothy Deighton, Professor of Viola, Penn State)

In January of 2009 I was approached by Juliet White-Smith, a colleague at the University of Northern Colorado, to compose a piece for two violas to be premiered at the 2009 International Viola Congress in Stellenbosch, South Africa.  I immediately thought of adding five-string banjo into the mix as I often compose for this, my instrument. It was also a great excuse to travel to a part of the world that I’d never seen to perform on the premiere.  One of my very first compositions as an undergraduate was a two-movement composition for viola and banjo, but I hadn’t written for the viola in such a prominent soloistic manner since.

Capricious Apparitions, scored for two violas and bowed five-string banjo, takes its title from Federico Fellini’s film, . The title refers to surrealist images that the main character Guido Anselmi, a famous film director, played by Marcello Mastroianni, inserts into a film that he is making. The composition is in five short movements, each depicting a different “apparition” scene from the film. While the piece has a programmatic design that follows the apparitional dream sequences in the film, I derived the colors used in the piece from sounds and techniques available on the bowed five-string banjo.

As a banjo player, my early roots are in bluegrass and Appalachian music (with many excursions into free improvisation and electronics). I exploit the rich tone colors that the instrument may produce in a variety of ways using a cello bow, an Ebow, guitar slides, paperclips inserted between the strings, etc. As a teenager in the 1970s I often attended the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, held each September. The festival is a huge event featuring a diverse array of folk artists along with a variety of guitar, fiddle, and banjo competitions, among others. It was at one of these festivals that I heard the wonderful banjo player DMinor Bennett bowing a low-tuned, I think fretless, banjo with renowned Arkansas musician Washboard Leo. I’d never seen anyone bow the banjo before, and I still don’t see many players bow it, though a few do now. After that, I began experimenting with the bow, going through a variety of awkward right hand positions over a period of two to three years before I hit upon holding it more like a viola da gamba player. And I figured out a few things the hard way instead of doing the obvious—asking a string player how to produce a good tone with the

bow. I learned to angle the bow a little into the string and I learned different tone-producing aspects of bow pressure on the strings. Natural harmonics speak beautifully on the bowed banjo, and the harmonic of an octave and a third, which speaks poorly when plucked, rings out when bowed. Even pronounced harmonic glissandi are possible. As we were rehearsing Capricious Apparitions, White-Smith suggested that I would produce better results with a cello bow, and she was right. The instrument has a flat bridge and fingerboard enabling the playing of bowed chords with no arpeggiation. This can sound at times a little like an Indian tambura. A device that may be added to the tuning gears on the instrument, the Scruggs Keith Tuner, is constructed to enable a quick scordatura from one specific pitch to another without overshooting the target pitch and then can be returned accurately to the starting pitch. A limitation of the bowed banjo is that single melodic lines can only be played on the first, outside (D) string, but melodic bowing sounds a little like the Chinese erhu or the Indian sarangi. As I was composing Capricious Apparitions, these technical possibilities suggested the following complementary colors and orchestrational ideas in the viola writing (Table 1).

Table 1: Possible complementary colors and orchestrational ideas between viola and banjo

Elwood Table1

The entire composition is an arch form, the distinction of which is mostly evident if one compares the tempi, emotive moods, techniques, and colors of corresponding arch movements (I–III–V and II–IV). The arch-form consistency between movements I, III, and V lies in the rhythmic drive infused in each of these sections. The correspondence between II and IV lies in coloristic use of glissandi and harmonics, and there is some motivic correspondence between these sections.

Movement I:  Traffic – The opening scene of the movie is a dream sequence in which the main character is trapped in a traffic jam. He seems relaxed until the car begins to fill with smoke and he can’t escape. Suddenly he is floating out of the car, above the traffic, then high above a beach. Conveying a little of the frantic nature of being trapped in the car, I created a movement with a strong rhythmic drive and a motivic idea that, for me, is reminiscent of Bartók (ex.1).

Example 1. Elwood, Capricious Apparitions, movt. I, Traffic, mm. 7–11.

Elwood Example1

Ex. 1 Sound Recording

The frenzy and nebulousness of a dream world is furthered by a short, polyrhythmic section that ends with a chromatic descent in harmonics (ex. 2).

Example 2. Elwood, Capricious Apparitions, movt. I, Traffic, mm. 34–47.

Elwood Example2

Ex. 2 Sound Recording

The violas, when playing tremolo in the example above, are sul ponticello, a timbral approximation of the bowed banjo. Throughout the piece I exploit a number of the coloristic possibilities of the viola, but, unlike the scoring for banjo, I didn’t use new extended techniques.  Having come of age as a composer in the 1970s and 80s, I often explored the extended sonic possibilities of the instruments for which I composed. As I grow older, I’m less interested in exploring those sonic regions as I believe that much interesting ground has been explored by a number of composers, and I want to concentrate on the idiomatic tonal/harmonic possibilities of traditional instruments.  However, that being said, the blend of timbral possibilities in the violas mixed with the unique sound of a bowed banjo yields interesting colors.

Rhythm and melody are the foci of the third movement, titled Nino Rota (ex. 3). Rota’s music, for me, is sometimes the best part of Fellini’s movies. His scores are often dance-like in nature, and I wanted to emulate the rhythmic consistency of a Rota composition while not actually appropriating his wonderful material.

Example 3. Elwood, Capricious Apparitions, movt. III, Nino Rota, mm. 14–24.

Elwood Example3

Ex. 3 Sound Recording

Example 4. Elwood, Capricious Apparitions, movt. V, Spaceship to the Inferno, mm. 24–30.

Elwood Example4

Ex. 4 Sound Recording

The excerpt from the fifth movement, Spaceship to the Inferno (ex. 4), alludes to ideas from at least three other movements: the use of the tremolo from the first movement, the accompanimental rhythm found throughout the third movement, a descending/ascending line from the third movement, a restatement of the opening “Bartókian” motive from the first movement, and a short glissando alluding to the second movement. The scene in the movie that this section is evoking programmatically is at the very end, where all of the film’s characters join hands and dance in a circle on a raised platform around the semi-completed rocket in the film.

If the consistency between movements I, III, and V lies in the rhythmic drive, then the correspondence between II and IV lies in coloristic use of glissandi, harmonics, and chords. The second movement, The Girl at the Spring, depicts a scene in which Guido is at a health spa and imagines that a beautiful woman is giving him spring water. The movement opens with the banjo playing a single bowed tone that is then tuned upward on the sustain through scordatura. After establishing the harmonic tone on the banjo with the bow, the bow is released and the left hand bends the pitch of the string with the tuner. The violas then take up this gesture using harmonic glissandi. This technical capability on the banjo inspired the use of glissandi as a primary motivic idea in the second movement (ex. 5).

Example 5. Elwood, Capricious Apparitions, movt. II, The Girl at the Spring, mm. 1–14.

Elwood Example 5

Ex. 5 Sound Recording

This glissando texture is then expanded to full chords, developed from the ability of the banjo to play full-chord glissandi (ex. 6).

Example 6. Elwood, Capricious Apparitions, movt. II, The Girl at the Spring, mm. 20–29.

Elwood Example6


Ex. 6 Sound Recording

The movie 8 1/2 is an Italian film from the early 1960s. At that time an artist living in a Catholic society might wish to seek the imprimatur, or approval, from authorities of the church for a published work. There is a dream sequence in which Guido descends a staircase with many people into a steam bath and meets with a cardinal of the Catholic Church in an attempt to secure his imprimatur; paradoxically this seems to be a meeting in hell. I based the fourth movement on a juxtaposition of major chords separated by major thirds that I was able to produce with harmonics on the banjo (ex. 7). The resulting progression of major triads

(B–G–B–D) reminded me of the exquisite “God Music” portion of George Crumb’s string quartet Black Angels (1969). In Crumb’s composition the chord progression is performed with bowed wine glasses. In my movement, the banjo sets up a continuous cycle of glassy harmonics on the major chords while the violas state a short non-tonal melody. (This connection to Crumb led, in part, to a performance of the piece at the George Crumb Festival in Boulder, Colorado, with Juliet White-Smith and Erika Eckert, Associate Professor of Viola at the University of Colorado, Boulder.)

Example 7. Elwood, Capricious Apparitions, movt. IV, Steambath with the Cardinal, mm. 1–11.

Elwood Example7

Ex. 7 Sound Recording

Later in the movement, to evoke a religious atmosphere, the violas accompany the banjo, which is playing a short quote/paraphrase of the Pange Lingua, a Gregorian chant that I grew up singing in an Episcopal church boys’ choir, and which was used by many Renaissance composers as the basis for mass settings (ex. 8).

Example 8. Elwood, Capricious Apparitions, movt. IV, Steambath with the Cardinal, mm. 24–28.

Elwood 8 copy

Ex. 8 Sound Recording

The overall form of the piece in five movements, with corresponding tempi and colors, may be diagrammed in the following manner (Table 2):

Table 2: Overall form of Capricious Apparitions.

Elwood Table2

When one of my students at the University of Northern Colorado is beginning a composition, we sometimes talk about programmatic design because they often are thinking of something extramusical that they would like to express. And it can be helpful in the beginning stages of a composition to have a story to depict. I have written pieces based on proportions discerned in works of two-dimensional art and films, and I’ve used poetry, novels, and other music compositions as the starting point for my own work. But, in the final analysis, music is about music; sounds that may be organized around a structure that will give the listener a sense of an internal coherence between motives, phrases, colors, etc. In Capricious Apparitions the programmatic idea was an important starting point to get my pencil moving, but it was the technical capabilities and limitations, timbres, and the overall sound world of the bowed banjo that guided the manner in which I wrote for the viola. Composers intrinsically possess a variety of starting points for their creations. A composer who is a good pianist might write pianistically, an organist like Messiaen produces chordal structures for winds or orchestras that sound as if they might have been realized originally on his instrument, and Hindemith—a violist—wrote much significant work for his instrument. A banjo player such as I thinks harmonically and melodically; as a composer I might think contrapuntally in some compositions, but the fact is that my performance medium leads

less to counterpoint and more to chords, colors, rhythm, and melody, especially if I am writing for this instrument with the limitations and advantages of melodic and chordal realization described above. The viola is a perfect blend for bowed banjo in terms of range as the banjo shares much of the same registration. The viola possesses a wide range of pronounced and rich colors that blend beautifully with the banjo, which made the pairing of these two timbres seem quite natural. I hope in the future to further explore these two sound worlds in combination.

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From left to right: Juliet White-Smith, Paul Elwood, and Tim Deighton premiere Capricious Apparitions at the 2009 International Viola Congress (photo courtesy of Dwight Pounds)

Special thanks to the Harwood Museum of Art, Taos, New Mexico, for the time and space to write Capricious Apparitions during an artist residency; Lucy Perera, Curator of Education and Deborah McLean, former Acting Director of the museum; Juliet White-Smith, Professor of Viola at the University of Northern Colorado; Timothy Deighton, Professor of Viola at Penn State; Erika Eckert, Associate Professor of Viola at the University of Colorado, Boulder; and John Drumheller, Instructor and Director of Music Technology, UC Boulder.

Paul Elwood is currently Assistant Professor of Composition at the University of Northern Colorado.  His music often incorporates his background as a folk musician and experimentalist on the five-string banjo with that of his voice as a composer who loves the processes and syntax of contemporary writing. Elwood studied percussion with J. C. Combs and composition with Donald Erb, David Felder, Walter Mays, Arthur S. Wolff, Charles Wuorinen, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Gunther Schuller.


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