Șarpelecupene / The Feathered Serpent
by Ion Bogdan Ștefănescu
English version by Andreea Olariu
If you are lucky enough to meet Violeta Dinescu, you can say that your life as a musician has not been in vain. Even more so if you are a flutist. Her attraction for the flute has led to the creation of dozens of remarkably expressive and artistically powerful works. These compositions have been performed by flutists and flute ensembles all around the world. One such brilliant performer is Carin Levine.
I had the chance to meet Violeta more than 25 years ago. I performed her music in hundreds of concerts, including world premieres at the George Enescu Festival and at many other contemporary music festivals all over Europe and the United States. Also, as member of the ”Trio Contraste” or as soloist, I have recorded a series of CDs with the Berliner Rundfunk and Deutschlandfunk-Köln recording studios: Flutes Play (up to 32 flutes), 2015; Sieben Rosen hat der Strauch (up to 31 flutes), 2014; Der Schlüssel der Träume (the Trio Contraste), 2013; Forgetmenot (solo flute), 2012; Tabu (the Trio Contraste), 2010; Circuit (solo flute), 2005, all published in Germany at the ”gutingi” Label.
Her music reveals a profound knowledge and intuition of the deepest layers of the ancestral Romanian folklore, a music in which different size of flutes (whistles) play the solo line and become an extension of the Romanian soul. Maybe because of my Romanian background I am attracted to this music and I have managed to delve into the ciphered nooks of Violeta Dinescu’s art, achieving, after much probing and exchange of experience, to perceive her every intention, thought and experience very clearly. This is the reason why I have the composer’s permission to perform her music and also, by my own inspiration and the mastering of the flute technique, to make changes to the text, adding certain timbral effects and colours that spring out from my artistic sense. This performer-composer collaboration has led to the recording of our last two CDs, which overwhelms the listener with its luxuriance of sound (31 and, respectively, 32 flutes). I can sicerely say that, at this moment, I find it very natural to perform this type of music and, even more, that I have become addicted to Violeta Dinescu’s music.
After the release of the “Flutes Play” CD, when I have considered that our collaboration has reached its peak, an idea sparked into our minds, of expanding this project by creating a piece for Alto flute and flute ensemble. ”Flutes Play” was Violeta Dinescu’s dream come true, after 30 years of waiting. However, a single remark from me was enough for the fire to reignite: I have confessed to her that I think it to be a true accomplishment to imagine such diversity of sound through an instrumentation that uses only three flute sizes – the Piccolo, the Concert flute and the Bass flute. In other words, the sound panoply was missing the Alto flute. Violeta’s response came right away: “we will use the existing material for three other versions, having the Alto flute as solo instrument and an ensemble of 16, 24 and 32 flutes. We will make a new CD! What a joy this will be!”
Also in the Deutschlandfunk-Köln Studios, with the same audio engineer from ”Flutes Play”, the exceptional professionist Stephan Smidt, we have recorded the new music and afterward, just like with the aforementioned CD, we have done the overlapping of voices and the mastering in Bucharest, with Florin Tudor’s help, an excellent audio engineer from the Romanian Broadcasting Society.
The title – ”The Feathered Serpent” –, inspired by the impact that Violeta Dinescu’s music had over me, has been enthusiastically approved as soon as we have finished the recording session. The Feathered Serpent is a symbol that obsesses me for over 30 years now, ever since I read the novel ”Hombres de maiz” (“Men of Maize”) by the Guatemalan writer Miguel Angel Asturias. The novel reveals troubling aspects of the Aztec mythology, who worship the god Quetzalcoatl, the supreme god, the god of the fields, of life and death. This title came somehow by itself and because of the surprise I gave Violeta by multiplying the three Alto flute pieces with traditional instruments belonging to geographical areas that apparently have no relation to one another: Sona in India, Tiuga in Romania and Kazoo in America, Alabama. Moreover, in an impulse created by the music, I have also dared to play on the prepared piano that was in the studio, its sound reminding of Asia. Everything took place under the composer’s watchful and very demanding eye. In this way we have closed the circle of our sound exploration, fulfilling our dream.
Each of the six pieces from this CD represents an unique world of sound, even if, sometimes, the solo material or the accompaniment is repeated. It is as if you would watch yourself in the mirrored water that reflects rippled your image, with slight and obvious changes, transforming yourself, the way the wind blows or the light shines, into a different person.
The way the pieces are arranged on the CD is very well thought out. It starts out from the voluptuousness of the 32 flutes that accompany the Alto solo (The Feathered Serpent I), it passes through an exotic sonority of sometimes harsh, other times brilliant, sound explosions, creating unexpected colours (The Feathered Serpent II), and it reaches the middle of the CD, where the pieces for the 16-flute ensemble are showcased (The Feathered Serpent III and IV). The two pieces complement each other perfectly because of the fact that both have the Alto flute as the soloist. But, for The Feathered Serpent IV, a new – strange sounds come up by using the Tiuga which enters in a convoluted dialogue with the Alto flute. This dialogue can be suave, lasicivious or lively, but also twisted, quarrelsome or violently screaming, enriching thus the timbral luxuriance of the flutes’ sound.
The golden section of the CD starts with the fifth piece (The Feathered Serpent V), that reflects the sometimes clear and gentle, other times dramatic image of the music played on the Sona in The Feathered Serpent II.
Finally, the last piece (The Feathered Serpent VI) is the one with the Kazoo, prepared piano and 32 flutes, which closes the circle in a dazzling way and represents the twisted, diffussed, with staggered, amplified sequences, counterpart of the first piece on the CD.
An interpretation that is as close as possible to the composer’s imagination demands from the performer a thorough knowledge of the musical styles, of the playing techniques and of the different timbres produced on the traditional instruments of the Balkans cultures or those outside Europe, that have been imposed by contemporary music. In other words, the flutist must be capable to an extremely flexible blowing technique and unusual fingerings, to create sonorities that are similar to those of the Romanian flutes, the Bulgarian Pipe and of the Indian Bansuri, the Chinese Ditz and the Japanese Shakuhachi. Beside these, he must be capable of playing on the Sona (an Indian Oboe), Tiuga (a pumpkin with a long rod and Alto-saxophone mouthpiece), Kazoo and piano.
Furthermore, the performer must take into consideration the way Violeta Dinescu treats the tempo. The composer conceives her sound gestures after the model of certain types of Romanian folk music (the Hora, Brâul or different aksak rhythms, but especially the Doina and Bocetul –“the lament”, characteristic of the parlando – rubato style), as well as the far-away Asia, especially Japan: Migakura, the ritual music played on the flute before the religious ceremony, to purify the space, with micro-intervals, aeolian, harmonic, glissando sounds etc.; Gagaku, the telling example of ingenuity, dynamic, timbral and rhytymic complexity, which originates not from a Western music harmonic layout, but from a varied unison that is continuously out of tune due to the clever overlapping of the layers created by the Ryuteki and Komabue flutes, which are joined by the Hikirichi oboe, the Sho mouth organ, and so on.
According to these traditions, music is not measured the same way Western music is, and there is no constraint imposed by the metronome. Here, it is about the elasticity of time, of the tempo one chooses based on his/her own pulse. This is also the explanation for the success of perfectly recording and putting together the free (unmeasured) melodic lines of the 32 flutes, with improvisatory sections, countinuous deviations and enrichments of the themes or with blocks of silence, but also with moments of great precision, with simultaneous attacks and effects on all the 32 voices. Moreover, the ability of coming back, after two years from the recording of the ”Flutes Play” material, to using it as the accompaniment, creating the solo lines of the six pieces of the ”Feathered Serpent” by keeping the same breath, the same pulse.
The Feathered Serpent I for Alto flute and 32 flutes starts off with a recitative-like incantation surprised at its peak, at the highest intensity, where the voices that are endlessly repeating seem to enter into a trance, like spinning in circles. This spell of sound falls apart when the solo Alto flute joins in, the melodic line that officiates the ritual, always accompanied by scattered voices like sighs, like fragments of prayers, uttered while crying or through higher-pitched or lower-pitched voices, which can be heard from all directions.
It gradually creates the impression of a common and continuous wail, of a universal cry, that seems to be accompanied by nature itself, through subtle, crisp, sharp sounds, or like the movement of the stars that produces sounds of the most sophisticated, ethereal and translucent kind. All this “Mantra” ends up dissolving itself, through the melting of the voices, into a signal that is repeated over and over again, as it seems to gain distance from the listener, just like an itinerant ritual procession.
There are moments when the timbre of the different size flutes interlace and interwine, sometimes creating surprising sonorities, like the rustling of the tree branches in the wind, or the rippling of the rain. In Violeta Dinescu’s music one passes through trully incandescent moments, from cries of despair or revealing joy, through periods of quiet, which are airy and floating. The voices seem to catch their breath in order to start all over again on their way to achieving ecstasy. The techniques required to achieve this atmosphere are part of the panoply of extended flute playing techniques. The multiphonics, the harmonic sweep on a given sound, aeolian sounds, voice sounds, frullato, bisbigliando, sound with à gorge effect, whistle tones and many other effects are used, which also depend on the performer’s power of imagination.
The music of this work is perhaps mostly anchored in the Romanian folk tradition. The themes are original, segments of melodies and overlappings of voices lead to thinking about different types of song, such as Doina (song of lamentation and longing), or of the different size Romanian whistles. However, everything is filtered through its own sensitivity and is stylized, so that no real folk tunes are being quoted.
There is also a moment when the sonority is similar to that of a Alpenhorn (instrument used for communication inbetween the hill villages in the regions from where Violeta Dinescu also comes). Very often, the Alto flute acquires the sonority of the pipe, especially when it repeats melodic fragments which resemble a folk dance and when, accompanied by the voice, it wails. The Piccolos often have the whistles’ timbre, while the Concert flute succeeds in creating sonorities of the Romanian instrumental folk music by using the voice, or the air and the sound at once, through throat effects, etc.. The low-pitched flutes, even the solo one, through the assigned musical gestures and effects, make us think of the faraway Japan, as the glissandi, the appogiaturas, the glotis effects, the harmonics’ explosion, the multitude of vibrato types, the air jet sounds are techniques taken from the traditional Japanese instrument – Shakuhachi. The essence of Violeta Dinescu’s music is thus the combination, through surprising resonances, of several musical traditions, such as Japanese, Balkans and especially Romanian.
The Feathered Serpent II for Sona and 24 flutes carries us into a world of Asian sounds, where sudden rhythm breaks prevail. Harsh, aggressive sonorities, seemingly suggesting the samurai’s tough stare, sounds that alternate with moments of silence in the accompaniment, which increase the tension.
The Sona is an ubiquitous instrument in the Asian culture. It is found in India, China (Suona), Tibet, Japan (Charumera), or in Iran, Turkey and even in Balkans, where it is known as Zurna. The istrument fits perfectly into this music that seems to be rooted in the Japanese Gagaku court music tradition. On the other hand, even at the beginning of the piece there is again, in the background, the influence of Romanian music, especially due to the haul created by the voices that accompany the solo voice, a device so often used in our folk music as a short repeated musical motif, constantly embellished through melismas, glissandi, by changing registers and through dynamics (from the most present ones to echoes, creating a feeling of weightlessness). The sound garlands that interrupt this continuous haul, like some glittering swords, create shocks and disruptions in the musical discourse, achieving that cultural symbiosis I was talking about.
Therefore, Violeta Dinescu manages to reveal the antithesis of the two melodic planes that will eventually complement each other: she overlaps the Sona timbre, harsh, penetrating, obsessive, tense, that shapes a powerful and ambitious character, who is ready to provoke conflicts, over the 24 flutes’ plane, that have the choir’s role here, as if from the Greek tragedies. A passive or active commentary of the Asian instrument’s well-defined action is thus achieved. It is practically a constant crying of the crowd, having different states of mind, from the internalized ones, full of emotion, to those that unleash unsuspected human forces, a continuous struggle, forceful, like that of a true fighter. Even at the end of the piece, when, for a number of minutes, there is an atmosphere of resignation created by the incantation of accompaniment voices, endlessly repeating the same melodic fragment, like a humming in the background.
The main character’s voice that is fading away more and more, telling its last bits of melodic lines, is like mourning the fate of the land and of its subjects. A sudden register change takes place with the last musical gesture, which belongs to the Sona, returning to its original power. This surprising and brief epilogue suggests the rise, the confidence in a future life – the cycle, always continuous, of life and death.
The Feathered Serpent III for Alto flute and 16 flutes begins with the solitary wail of the Alto flute’s solo, like the Pan (god) on the Ladon river, where the Syrinx nymph, whom he was in love with, had drowned. Soon, as if rising from the water, the voices begin humming, then they increase their intensity, creating a feeling of anxiety, of fear, a feeling that is becoming increasingly more accusatory. In spite of all the whipping sound effects of the high flutes, of the simmering tumult that ends up exploding like a vulcano, the alto flute keeps its melodic path where its continuous crying can acquire dramatic, desperate accents, but it always returns to a state of resignation, until it melts into the depths of the soul.
In this piece, the Alto flute is treated like a Shakuhachi, but there are also moments when the wail accompanied by the flute ensemble’s whistle tone effect makes us think of the almost unstranslatable Romanian feeling called “dor” (longing): a mixture of pain, love, resignation, disappointment, a mood that can be best expressed through music.
Important themes can be found here, such as the group incantation at the beginning of the first piece, creating thus the idea of unity and wholeness. Basically, we can say that this is the third movement of this whole composition.
After all the struggle and drama of the musical text, at the end, like the rhythm of a breath that calms down after a long effort, the Alto flute’s melody, surrounded by iridescent comments of the other flutes, is moving further and further away, like the morning mist that floats over a smoothly flowing river.
The Feathered Serpent IV for Tiuga, Alto flute and 16 flutes brings forth a unique instrument, made from a long-stemmed pumpkin with six holes on one side and one hole on the other. It can be played with saxophone or taragot mouthpiece and, depending on the thickness of the rod, with soprano clarinet mouthpiece.
The instrument’s timbre is a mixture of those belonging to the Saxophone, Taragot and Bagpipe, but it also acquires shades of the Duduk sound, especially in the quiet moments. Therefore, Violeta Dinescu’s music seems to be imbued with Scottish and Armenian influences, while at the same time retaining the Romanian and Asian ones.
The Tiuga can be very aggressive, can have a downright tortured sound, but it can also express melancolic states of mind, with a certain sweetness of voice that can only be expressed by this instrument. Its timbre can be perfectly combined with that of the Alto flute, creating two distinct characters, with interwining paths, until the creation of a common, entirely new sound.
In this piece in particular there is an alternation between the more generous spaces offered to the solo instruments, that play one after the other, and the accompaniment of the 16 flutes, which creates blots of colour, or take on the leading role for giving the soloists time to rest.
Perhaps Violeta Dinescu’s intention of creating a music of the people is most obvious here, since fragments of Gagaku music and Romanian folk music are overlapped, over bits of Turkish and Arab music, created also by the solo Tiuga instrument, that has a “chameleon” timbre.
The finale is very special, because of 16 flutes’ plan, loud and full of harsh sounds, is melting away into a peaceful stillness, while the last musical remarks are given to the solo instruments. These, together, with a lot of energy, give away the feeling of victory coupled by that of salvation, after a journey full of torment, cries and noises, as it happens on an initiation road.
The Feathered Serpent V for Alto flute and 24 flutes is the movement that establishes the golden section of this complex work and, at the same time, it represents the decantation of all the musical material and technical procedures used thus far. On the other hand, it is the piece that presents most clearly the parlando-rubato style peculiar to the wail. Even from the first sound, which becomes a pivotal sound, around which are built the voices and melismas of all the other flutes that violently comment and step in, in the style of traditional Japanese music, a ritualistic atmosphere is being created, like that in a temple, as if almost being able to smell the purifying smoke, mixed with that of candles, myrrh and ointment.
The initial wail of the Concert flute is taken up by the Alto flute, with its special timbre, created in mixture with the interpreter’s voice, amplifying the ritualistic atmosphere.
The Romanian folk music that the flute’s wail bring forth creates a large solo section that uses, same pivotal-sound technique in a repetitive motif, with small melisma embellishments each time it reappears, introducing a new theme. Recognizable sounding blocks will appear on top of this ancestral wail, through the dynamization of the musical material. The solo voice becomes tensed, twisted, even outraged, which outlines another facet of man’s relationship wth divinity. In fact, the entire piece is based on this transfer of energy between man and divinity, which occurs only through a long ritual in places of worship, where all possible moods are exhibited. There is a continuous alternation between moments of calm, reverie, peace of mind and this continuous wail, which produces contradictory feelings, of sorrow and resignation, of deep rebellion.
The treatment of the finale, as it settles into a reconciliatory atmosphere by repeating the same motif that gradually fades away and over which, just a few seconds before completely disappearing, the Alto flute’s voice appears, full of breath and air, creating thus a feeling of weightlesness, of flight, vitality, of the cyclical aspect of life.
The Feathered Serpent VI for Kazoo, prepared piano and 32 flutes surprises with the completely new and unusual sound created by the solo instruments.
It forcefully begins with the Kazoo, which seems to present a religious hymn, of Byzantine inspiration, supported by the prepared piano’s harmony, with wiry, sometimes harsh, brittle sounds, that create different timbres, similar to those of plucked Sitar or Shamisen strings, with sounds produced by the hitting of the piano’s sounding board or by scratching its strings. A feeling of stillness is thus created by the music that is formed around the same sounds. The two solo voices play their song until exhaustion, until reaching ecstasy, like a Mantra. The active role is given to the flute ensemble, that obstinately comment on the themes already mentioned.
The entire piece is constructed on the rivalry of the religious and secular planes, that end up combining and interwining, until their melting into one another. A strong impression of weightlessness is thus created, like one enormous cloud that covers the entire Earth. One can hear sounds that seem to come from faraway horizons, like some answers, insinuations and additions to this obssesive Byzantine song.
The overlapping of the ancient folklore’s common elements, coming from so many parts of the world, over the suggestion of an Asian or Byzantine cult music, leads to the creation of an universal wail to which the whole humanity takes part. This is also the reason why I consider the vast musical discourse, divided into six distinct parts, as a whole that forms a huge ”Symphony of the nations”, with some of the most inovative and surprising sonorities.
”The Feathered Serpent” is an eloquent example of the perfect symbiosis between performer and composer.
As a sign of appreciation and gratitude for the pieces offered to me by Violeta Dinescu throughout the time, I dedicate the following poem to her:
The Feathered Serpent
(To Violeta Dinescu)
Glossy light like serpent’s skin
coiled around our gaze,
salted fantasies and roots
convulse like fish abandoned by the waves,
spindle torn from the sky
passing through a crane’s bone
animates thirty-three flutes,
the sighing becomes The Feathered Serpent;
we kneel before it –
haughty like a swan’s neck –
Quetzalcoatl sheds a sea of tears
onto our quivering hearts,
the contour of colored feathers,
the streak between light and color
lead us in circles
smelling of ripe wheat
until the sky is united
with rescued shadows.
English version © Adrian G. Sahlean
 I choosed to write the Title in Romanian language in one word. By chanting “Șarpelecupene” several times, the musicality of the word becomes to sound like an incantation with lights and shadows. Exactly like Violeta’s music. She uses a huge range of timbres in the solo sections while, in the back ground, repeats some patterns over and over again, with slight changes, different effects and sound colors, creating the most wanton music ever heard.