Today’s Seminar started with us discussing our thoughts and opinions of the opera Turandot, from last week. Everyone seemed to really enjoy it, and we each had our own favorite particular aspects, whether it was the music, the sets, the costumes, the conductor, or the singing. We did have a discussion about the purpose of the character Liu in the opera, because to most of us, she seemed like a pretty pointless servant girl character, who eventually died for someone who barely took the time to notice her. This led to a discussion about how characters in a performance, especially an opera, often stay true to the societal standards of the time and place. For example, Turandot was set in China hundreds of years ago, and in the Chinese culture of that period, servant girls were there simply for that – to be servants, and their personhood was essentially insignificant and worthless. So when Liu killed herself out of love for the prince in the opera, to us, it seemed cruel and heartless, but to the other people in the opera and to audiences who saw the opera during the time it was set in, this was not unusual. In fact, it was expected and accepted.
The conversation revolving around Liu and different acceptable societal roles led into another conversation about socially acceptable music. Sometimes, music from other cultures can be used disrespectfully and can become a sort of cliché, for example the way we all know the stereotypical “Chinese music” that we learned from cartoons and movies. This can be considered “racist” in certain contexts and uses. Turandot is an opera that uses mostly Italian music, but there are hints of Chinese melodies and music, especially when Liu is singing. This is NOT considered “racist.” On the contrary, it fits into the story and the composer is introducing something exotic to American audiences like us. Being an opera composer can be slightly difficult, as a composer has to try and achieve balance between introducing exoticism and not creating a story that is too exotic, and can be misunderstood or taken offensively. I found this conversation interesting, since I had never even considered this musical aspect, aside from the fact that it was strange watching Turandot being performed in Italian when I knew that the setting was in China.
For the last hour of class, we had a guest speaker, Michael Sirotta. He is a world-renowned composer and is in the Music Department at the College of Staten Island. He has just completed his first major orchestral symphony, Fantasia Pripetshok, which will be premiered on Sunday, October 14 by the Staten Island Philharmonic. Sirotta has always been a lover of music, but he discovered about eighteen years ago that he wanted to take a simple Jewish folksong, Oyfn Pripetshok, and use its simple tune and melody to create a symphonic masterpiece. Oyfn Pripetshok is a folksong that opens with a description of a rabbi teaching his students the Hebrew alphabet and then uses that simple scene as they key to the national survival of the Jewish people throughout the centuries. It is a beautiful song, and sometimes referred to as the “second Jewish national anthem.”
What Sirotta did was take Oyfn Pripetshok and create variations of the one tune in order to make it into a piece of music that could be played by an orchestra. Once again, being a composer is a very difficult role because the composer has to be able to strike a balance between the type of music that is doable for the orchestra performers and the type of musical sound the composer wants to achieve. This is all taken into account when creating a theme and variation of a tune or melody. Creating a variation means that you take a tune of a piece of music that has been written and embellish upon it, make it more fancy and in a sense, more difficult to perform. Usually, it will follow a pattern where the actual tune is played, then the first variation is slightly different, but you can still sing and hear the tune, and then the second variation is completely different, unrecognizable in comparison. This was also quite interesting to me, because of course, I had heard classical symphonies before, but I had never realized that this is sometimes the pattern they follow. To be honest, I listened to two symphonies over the weekend and thought them to be long and repetitive, which is what happens when a composer creates a variation of a simple tune. Before we left class, we listened to a piece of Sirotta’s newest symphony, Fantasia Pripetshok. It was a beautiful piece of music and from the short piece
I heard, actually appealed to me much more than the other symphonies I listened to this weekend. I am looking forward to hearing this piece of music played live on Sunday by the Staten Island Philharmonic, and to expanding my mind to understand and enjoy yet another genre of music.