Out of the Box: Palimpsests & Synesthetes

Nov 3, 2019

Take a moment to enjoy a reimagining of the old and a dive into the new in this week's "Out of the Box," with two cool new releases that feature the mysterious and roomy sounds of the marimba.

WHAT: Richard and Mika Stoltzman: Palimpsest / Julian Loida: Wallflower

MUST LISTEN TRACKS: J.S. Bach Partita in D minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1004: Chaconne (arr. for Marimba by M. Stoltzman) / Julian Loida's "Wallflower"

WHY I THINK YOU'LL LOVE THESE ALBUMS: The hollow, round sound of the marimba is a fascinating instrument to listen to regardless of who's playing it, and Mika Stoltzman is one of the best. You'll see, her arrangement of Bach's heartbreaking Chaconne is breathtaking and transfixing. 

PALMIMPSEST

I'm a huge fan of words and word origins. If you've caught my daily trivia question weekday evenings at 5:30 on WCRB, you'll know that to be true. Some past favorites include that the little plastic tip at the end of your shoelaces is called an aglet; that the word "cliché" is actually onomatopoeic, deriving from the metal clicking sound of type being set in the early days of printing; that "bootlegging" likely has a New England origin, referring to entrepreneurial Maine law-flaunters who stored illegal nips of hooch in their bootlegs and then sold discreet sips on the street to passersby. Dactylology is the study of fingerprinting, and bryology the study of moss. A perennial favorite is the delightful fact that a group of lemurs is known collectively as a "conspiracy."

I could go on. 

Point being, in Richard and Mika Stoltzman's new album, Palimpsest, I learned a cool new word, and I love that. 

"It was common practice during the Medieval period to dismantle manuscripts that were no longer of use, scrape the parchment, and repurpose them to create new manuscripts" - Musicologist Christina Dioguardi, on Palimpsests

Palimpsests are old pieces of manuscript paper whose original markings were scraped off so that the paper could be used again. Think of it as medieval recycling. This happened a fair amount to early music manuscripts, and pages abound, particularly in Italy. And, as chance would have it, I actually have a friend whose dissertation happens to be studying palimpsests. Her name is Christina Dioguardi, and she describes them this way:

"It was common practice during the Medieval period to dismantle manuscripts that were no longer of use, scrape the parchment, and repurpose them to create new manuscripts. For example, I'm currently investigating the San Lorenzo Palimpsest which is located in Florence, Italy, and which serves as a catalogue of property acquisitions for the church of San Lorenzo; however, residue on its surviving parchment leaves points to a large collection of secular late-medieval polyphony, compiled and copied in the first decade of the 15th century. The underlying music of this particular manuscript was discovered in 1984, but the imaging technology didn’t exist to fully reveal what was underneath the overwritten material until recently.  Now, thanks to multispectral imaging technology and image manipulation software, we can recreate the original musical contents and thus reexamine their impact on the history of music, while preserving the manuscript's second use."

How cool is that? 

A page from the San Lorenzo Palimpsest. (L) the naked eye view; (R) the underlying music revealed through imaging
Credit Janke, Andreas and John Nádas. The San Lorenzo Palimpsest, Florence, Archivio Del Capitolo Di San Lorenzo, Ms. 2211 : Introductory Study and Multispectral Images, 2016.

So! A palimpsest is a physical thing, something reused for another purpose, while its original purpose lingers underneath. That makes it a good poetic word as well, one representing renewal, rediscovery, and the hunt for a deeper, unseen purpose. And it's in this poetic sense that the Stoltzmans use "palimpsest" in their new album.

It begins with old tunes reimagined, like the solo marimba arrangement of the Bach Chaconne, and his Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue BWV 903 arranged for clarinet, marimba, and bandoneón (Argentine accordion, essentially). Then there’s the jazzy take on Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess," a favorite encore piece of clarinetist Richard Stoltzman’s, that melds 19th- and 20th-century worlds together (watch below). There are a few works composed specifically for the clarinet and marimba husband and wife duo, including John Zorn's title track "Palimpsest," which lays a quiet, familiar groundwork for the marimba, and then overlays that with more abstract clarinet playing from Richard Stoltzman. It’s "almost as if Ornette Coleman had stepped into the room,” they write, “and it keeps in conflict with the steady metre of the 'old manuscript' of Mika's part."

Oh, and while perhaps less related to the word "palimpsest," nevertheless be sure to listen to the deliciously moody tangos by Piazzolla that close the album out. They're great.

All in all, Palimpsest is one of those albums where the value of judging something by its cover bears out. I began listening because I liked the word on the cover, and then couldn’t stop because I liked what they did with it so much. The album is really enjoyable, and I hope you like listening to it as much as I did.

Watch Mika and Richard Stoltzman play their arrangement of the Ravel "Pavane for a Dead Princess" at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival in 2014. 

WALLFLOWER

I have been using the title track of Boston-based percussionist Julian Loida's Wallflower as the introductory music to the on-air segment that accompanies these articles (airing Sundays at 9, following WCRB In Concert), and I wanted to give the piece an opportunity to be heard in full. Pairing it with Mika Stoltzman's playing of the Bach was the perfect opportunity.

"I am on the spectrum of sensory phenomenon called synesthesia in which the experience of one sense cognitively connects to my other senses." - Julian Loida

Loida is synesthete - which you better believe is another of my favorite words.  As he describes in Wallflower, being synesthetic is to be on "the spectrum of sensory phenomena... in which the experience of one sense cognitively connects to my other senses." Synesthetes report being able to taste words, or see music. In Julian Loida's case, certain musical notes represent themselves as colors to him. For example, an "E" will be yellow, a "C" is orange, and an "A" red. He goes on to explain that "this does not mean I am blinded when I hear music, but I do have a deep connection between color, texture, and sound." And, the more resonant an instrument and the more reverberant a room, the more intense the synesthetic experience.

His album Wallflower is beautifully reverberant and roomy, swimming effortlessly between minimalist, R&B, electronic, folk, and jazz influences. Every track is lovingly composed to please his synesthetic senses, to make, as he writes, a "musical painting in which I assemble sound to evoke the colors in my mind." But he doesn't shut the non-synesthetes out of the experience. Instead he washes us in rich, driving soundscapes that carry so that you can’t help but listen beginning to end.