Stravinsky’s Les Noces Reworked for Five Voices and Four Hands

Toward the end of Stravinsky’s “Russian” period, before he dove into Neo-Classism and twelve-tone music, he wrote a rather unusual non-symphonic piece for four pianos, percussion, and a full chorus. Like Stravinsky’s The Rite of SpringLes Noces (translated as The Wedding) was composed for the Ballets Russes. It premiered in the Parisian Théâtre de la Gaîté with choreography by Bronislava Nijinska in 1923, though Stravinsky had been working on different versions of the cantata since as early as 1913.

Looking for a new and ambitious project, local composers Dominique Leone, Kanoko Nishi, and Regina Schaffer decided they were going to tackle Les Noces and make a difficult work even more difficult by arranging it for just two pianos and five voices. Their goal was to stay as true as possible to Stravinsky’s score and capture the fullness of the original arrangement with a much paired-down ensemble.

The results?

We’ll find out this weekend when the ten-piece Ensemble Épouser premieres Les Noces at Berkeley’s Maybeck House. Meanwhile, take a listen to this remarkable recording with Nishi and Schaffer on piano and Leone doing all the choral parts, including the soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass soloist parts.

In case you’re wondering how that was possible, Leone uses a computer pitch shifter to reach all the high and low octaves that are outside his natural range. He also uses voice amplification pedals to double or triple the voice and thus give the effect of a chorus.

The recording is all the more remarkable once you understand the circumstances under which it came into existence.

“Dominique actually tricked us into doing the recording!” says Nishi with a laugh. While she and Schaffer were still just learning the grueling piano parts, Leone spent a month recording them, often only eight bars at a time, apparently for “a demo” to help him learn all the vocal parts.

“It was a very arduous process of stopping and starting and stopping and starting,” says Leone, who later edited all the piano parts together and then recorded the voice parts over them. After Nishi’s initial surprise when Leone released the recording, she was very pleased with the results.

However arduous recording Les Noces may have been, this weekend’s live performance of the piece presents its own set of challenges. As Leone explains, the five singers will be continuously switching in and out of different choral and solo parts with no rest, like they would normally expect to have in a choral performance. They will also have to deal with a lot of the same kind of technology Leone used in the recording, which presents somewhat of an onstage logistical quandary.

Another major challenge for the small ensemble they have put together, says Nishi, is “trying to embody the power of the piece as it’s written originally for a bigger ensemble, trying to accommodate that.”

Her approach to adapting the eight-handed piano for four hands has mostly been to choose what seem to be the most essential parts in each movement. But she also has broken up the different piano parts so that at a given time one pianist may be playing one hand from one piano part, and the other hand will be playing from a different part. Blithely summarizing her approach, she says, “I just try to make it convincing when I play that it’s written for four pianos somehow, so I can get people to believe it and hypnotize them.”

The biggest challenge of all, though, is simply Stravinsky’s score in itself, independently of the way in which it is being adapted for this particular performance. “It is a very very hard piece to start with,” Nishi says, laughing again. “So, that’s been the main challenge, more than the fact that we are doing a different version of it. The parts are just very hard for every single player.”

Leone agrees. “Stravinsky is a very difficult composer for singers,” he says. “He wrote some but not a lot of choral music. He is much more of a instrumental composer. For the singers, that means they have a lot of very tricky lines, a lot of very tricky rhythms, big leaps, lyrics that don’t really seem like they go with the melody that you’re singing. So, it’s kind of odd. You always think that something’s wrong and you never can quite feel it. So, that’s really difficult.”

This, of course, is all part and parcel of what attracts these music adventurers to such a formidable project. While Leone has been a fan of Les Noces for many years, Nishi was unfamiliar with Stravinsky’s choral work till Leone proposed the collaboration. When she first hear it, she too immediately liked it.

“It sounded so contemporary, the way he used the voice in relation to the crazy orchestration he has,” she says, adding, “His writing for piano is just always really amazing. And the idea of having four pianos I thought was really cool.”

Friday and Saturday’s performance of Les Noces will be conducted by Kate McLoughlin with Diana Pray (soprano), Elise Cumberland (mezzo-soprano), Danishta Rivero (alto), Dominique Leone (tenor), Alexandra Buschman (bass), Kanoko Nishi and Regina Schaffer (pianos), Jordan Glenn (percussion), Jason Hoopes (bass), and Mark Clifford (mallets).

Stravinsky’s Les Noces by Dominique Leone, Kanoko Nishi, and Regina Schaffer will be performed at 8pm on July 29 & 30 at the historical Maybeck House in Berkeley. Advance tickets can be purchased here.

Too Many Irons (and Other Recipes)

Some of my fondest memories from Dublin in the mid-eighties involve me spending vast amounts of time in the kitchen pretending to do homework while listening to Capitol Radio, an alternative radio station broadcast from various shifting locations in the city.

My favorite show by far was Tony Gahan’s 20th Century Promised Land. It was through Tony that I was introduced to some of the best punk and new-wave music from the late seventies and eighties, bands such as Joy Division, The Only Ones, Magazine, The Chameleons, Ciccone Youth, This Mortal Coil, and Bauhaus.

It was devastating to those of us who religiously listened to Capitol, and particularly 20th Century Promised Land, when the government cracked down on all pirate radio stations in the country, shutting them down permanently on December 31, 1988. I distinctly remember how depressed we all were on New Year’s Eve at the Capitol Radio closing party. We solemnly counted down the seconds to 1989 and, just like that, on the stroke of midnight, a significant musical education ended for me and many others of my generation.

Fast forward more than twenty-two years later to the Mission District in San Francisco. A friend is telling me about an upcoming benefit show he’s doing. “We’re all doing covers of Cardiacs’ songs. You’ve probably never heard of Cardiacs. Hardly anybody over here has heard of them.”

Cardiacs? Yes. The name is definitely familiar. Cardiacs? How do I know that name? What did they sing again?

I go home, do a youtube seach, and discover the answer. “There’s Too Many Irons in the Fire.”

Bingo! Mr. Gahan had been especially fond of this 1987 song, or maybe it’s just the Cardiacs’ song I remember best from his radio show. How exciting it was to rediscover a forgotten piece of my youth! And how exciting it was that a bunch of local musicians were going to be paying tribute to this unique, iconoclastic band all these years later.

Little did I know that since the eighties and until fairly recently, Cardiacs have been continuing to make incredible music that has evolved from the early punk music I would have heard back in the day to more of a progressive, though none the less idiosyncratic, sound.

Ironically, a few years ago, Cardiacs’ composer and lead singer, Tim Smith, suffered a heart attack, followed by a number of strokes that have left him physically incapacitated. He is currently undergoing the protracted process of neurological rehabilitation.

Two Bay Area experimental musicians, Moe Staiano and Dominique Leone, both big Cardiacs fans for some years, decided they wanted to help out Tim Smith by organizing a benefit concert featuring a bunch of different local bands covering Cardiacs’ songs. In addition to raising money for Smith, the aim was also to expose more people to the music they loved so much.

Performing on Sunday’s benefit at Cafe du Nord, were a whole host of local music innovaters: Amy X Neuburg, Wiener Kids, Grex, Inner Ear Brigade, Dominique Leone, and a Cardiacs’ tribute band, ReCardiacs Fly, which included organizer Moe Staiano on drums and members of Reconnaissance Fly.

Most of the musicians had never heard of Cardiacs before organizers Staiano and Leone introduced them to it. But in the process of doing this show, all of them have become huge fans.

So, what is it about the music that inspires people, once they finally discover the band, to become such “obsessive fans,” as Leone says?

Bill Wolter, who leads progressive rock band Inner Ear Brigade, sums up the music in a single word: “transcendent.”

“The structure is complex and beautiful,” says Amy X Neuburg, who opened the show with a solo performance of two Tim Smith songs. There are “beautiful chord patterns that take twists and turns that are unexpected. It’s like art music. . . The compositions are classical in nature.”

Echoing this view, guitarist Marc Laspina of ReCardiacs Fly says, “Musically it’s like opening God’s cookbook. . . The melodies, the time changes, the energy. It’s completely unique!”

Laspina’s bandmate Polly Moller, who was introduced to Cardiacs by Staiano about a year ago, wonders, “How did I live this long and not know this band?”

Staiano himself says, “It’s like nothing else, and it’s very intense and energetic, and very well written and really thought out. There’s not very much music I’ve heard like that.”

But none of these descriptions can truly capture the music. You can talk about the incredible energy, the theatricality of the band’s performances, the weird time signatures, the sometimes spastic phrasing, the unique chord progressions, the distinctness of Tim Smith’s voice.

“But,” as Leone says, “it doesn’t even begin to sum up what they sound like, which is why so many people are surprised when they first hear them.”

Although all the musicians who performed at Sunday’s show have obvious technical chops, they still found it a challenge to recreate Smith’s music. Because Cardiacs are not especially well known, you can’t find tablatures for their songs on the web or, indeed, reliable lyrics sheets, so it was up to each band to piece together and notate the songs by themselves. In addition to the sheer complexity of the music, there were also other challenges.

Bassist Tim Walters of ReCardiacs Fly said that on some of the songs he couldn’t always hear the bass, so there was a lot of guessing and filling in the gaps involved.

On a similar note, interrupting her own performance, Neuburg issued a wry disclaimer about the accuracy of her lyrics. When you figure out what words Smith is singing, the lyrics are often pretty bizarre, so it’s hard to tell if you’ve really gotten them right.

None of this detracted from anybody’s fun. On the contrary, it was an evening of stellar performances that, by all accounts, left everybody wanting more, more, more.

My own personal favorite performance of the night was ReCardiacs Fly’s. With the longest set—doing four songs, all from the mid-eighties—there was really time to settle in with the music. Three songs were from Cardiacs’ 1984 album, The Seaside, and the other, which I was especially excited about, was (you guessed it) their 1987 single, “There’s Too Many Irons in the Fire,” the one song I actually knew some lyrics to.

ReCardiacs gave a spirited, high energy performance in full Cardiacs costume and face paint (white faces with red lipstick smeared willy nilly in the general vicinity of the mouth!). Lead singer Polly Moller played Tim Smith next to saxophonist Chris Broderick’s Sarah Smith, Smith’s then wife. Broderick with his golden curls bounced around onstage in a black dress and tiara, while Moller, in a mod suit complete with vintage eighties tie, twitched and grimaced, and smiled maniacally.

What a blast! All that was missing was a good ol’ eighties mosh pit, which probably would not have been that difficult to instigate.

The night ended with Leone and his band performing his favorite, “Dirty Boy” from the 1995 double album, Sing to God, a song, according to Leone, “so epic in every possible respect, pushing every kind of button that Cardiacs push for me, and doing it to the nth degree.” It certainly was an epic ending to an epic evening.

All the of musicians who performed on Sunday are excited to incorporate Cardiacs’ music into future performances with their respective bands. All of them, it seems, have become diehard fans. Leone was very encouraged to hear that audience and performers alike came away wanting more. Maybe another such benefit for Smith will happen again soon.

In the meantime, Leone’s message to those thirsty to hear Cardiacs’ music, and especially those who would like to help Tim Smith on the road to recovery?

“Go to iTunes and buy Cardiacs’ music.” It’s that simple.