Archive for June, 2024

Pravasa for choir and guitar by Vineet Shende

Since November 2023, I have had the immense pleasure of sharing the stage with the Bowdoin Chamber Choir under conductor Jeff Christmas on the realization of 4 movements Vineet Shende’s luscious PRAVASA – TRAVELS OF THE GUITAR.
The work is an immense and colorful tapestry of emotion, exploring the migration (pravasa) of the guitar from its earliest inception (~200 bc) to post-civil war. 
Some may recall that I premiered the first four movements in 2011 with the Oratorio Chorale under Peter Frewen. For the May concert we performed movements 1, 3, 4, and premiered movement 6. Yes, movement five is in the works!
Video: Pravasa begins at 12:40, but the whole concert was just beautiful. It was amazing work with the students and I have uploaded photos to facebook (click to see). The composers program notes are in the YT video comments and below. Well worth a read.

Note by the composer

Pravasa : The impetus for this piece stems from research I did for my Spring 2010 History of the Guitar course at Bowdoin College. As many people know, the guitar’s most immediate ancestor, the vihuela, came about because of Ferdinand and Isabella’s persecution of Islamic culture in late- 15th century Spain.

Luthiers tried to distance their instrument from the Moorish oud and its round back and pear- shaped body by changing it to a “Western” flat back and waisted body (while keeping everything else basically the same). As I found out in my research, the guitar’s earlier ancestors have equally compelling story lines, and it is these story lines that I have tried to musically express in Pravasa. (Pravasa means “migration” in Sanskrit.)

Each movement of the piece focuses on a particular early relative of the guitar and uses concepts and techniques associated with that early relative.

For texts, I used poems that were written in those cultures at the same time when these instruments appeared. Whereas the long-necked lute (a plucked string instrument that has one main melodic string and one or more drone strings, such as the sitar) has a 5000-year history, the short-necked lute (where all strings are fretted, like the guitar) is relatively recent, and dates to the second-century BCE. The earliest depiction of this instrument comes from a sculpture from the ancient kingdom of Gandhara (in modern-day Pakistan). At this same site were found the earliest extant Buddhist writings in the world (on birch- bark), and I used one of these as the text for the first movement, The Rhinoceros Sutra. The Indian rhinoceros is a solitary creature, and this solitude is used as a metaphor in this sutra to illustrate the Buddhist concept of detachment from worldly and base concerns. The first section of the movement uses a driving guitar line with repeating figures that slowly expand. Over this, half of the choir sings the original Gandhari text in short, syncopated bursts while the other half sings their English translation in a sustained manner. In the second section, the text deals with the concept of detachment, and I set the Gandhari text in polyrhythmic expanding cells that quickly “detach” from semantic meaning itself. This concept continues to the aleatoric climax of the piece, where the text “becoming free of earthly intention” corresponds to freedom from meter as well. All short-necked lutes are held cradled and close to the body.

When one plays a guitar (or pipa, for that matter), one feels its vibrations against their heart. Even a slight rotation of the fingernail will cause a vast change in timbre. This intimate relationship between player and instrument is wonderfully reflected in the text of the Chinese fifth-century poem The Pipa. In setting this text, I have used many techniques associated with that instrument such as string bends, harmonics, and tremolos.

The text of the piece, At the Gateway of Rhyme, was written just as the barbat was transforming into the oud and making its way into the Arabian Peninsula. Seventh-century poet Suwayd ibn Kura’s metaphor of words as beautiful, unruly animals that must be lovingly tended, but also cajoled and herded into poems is an apt description of the creative process, and definitely one that I can relate to as a composer. Pitch material for this movement was derived from traditional Arabic maqams, and specific characteristics of the oud, such as microtonal ornamentation and double courses can be heard in the use of string bends and unison note doubling.

The banjo is a direct descendant of West African instruments such as the Senegambian Akonting. However, by the 19th century, it began to be strongly associated with a different tradition – the racist minstrel show. After the Civil War, to distance themselves from this painful connection, African Americans began to leave the banjo behind in favor of the guitar. Langston Hughes’ 1925 poem The Minstrel Man perfectly captures the shame and anger felt by African Americans compelled to participate in these humiliating minstrel shows.

In setting it, I have used many of the techniques – rolls, bends, cross-picking, etc. – that African American banjo players brought to the guitar. The influence of these banjo techniques was foundational for the sound of blues and rock, and though they began in a world of unimaginable oppression, they have ultimately made the guitar the most popular instrument played today.

I am thankful for all the work that Jeff Christmas and the Bowdoin Chamber Choir have put into Pravasa over the last year. And as you will hear, the guitar part for this piece is not only difficult, but requires familiarity with several completely different fretted instrumental traditions. I feel so grateful (and, quite frankly, spoiled) to have Aaron Larget-Caplan’s immense talent and dedication on this journey. -Vineet Shende

Aurore by Aaron Larget-Caplan • world premiere

Aurore by Aaron Larget-Caplan
On April 26, 2024 in Distler Performance Hall at Tufts University, composer and pianist John McDonald gave the world premiere of Aurore, the first piano piece of mine to be performed in public. He performed it with such love and beauty.

Happily written in January 2024 for Chinese pianist Yilin Shi, aka Yilin ‘Aurore’ Shi. Aurore means first light in French.


See John and Aaron working on Aurore at Tufts University in March 2024.