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Music: Evolving Ritual as Survival Strategy

Daniel Payne

Variations in Theme. Solo cello piece written and performed by Daniel Payne, 2020.

“Consider the spaces between the destinations, the stories, the music. You've got to listen.”
Chris McRae (qtd. In Shoemaker 321).

It took one weekend for my world to change. My life as an urban cyclist flaneur passionately connected to Toronto’s art and music scene came to a full stop. I remember spending Friday March 13th on my usual weekend pilgrimage to the Rex Hotel in downtown Toronto listening to Jazz oblivious that by Monday March 16th the venue—which has hosted performances seven days a week for over thirty years—along with others across the world would fall silent. During this fateful Ides of March 2020 shaped by the covid-19 pandemic, I was faced with the long, lonely reality that my field of vision would inevitably enclose on itself. My chaotic life in a city shaped by the collisions of art, music, culture—as made possible by Toronto’s diversely urban environment—had diminished from the orbit of the world as reflected in the city’s downtown core to my one-bedroom, 800 square foot house.

In acknowledgment of this diminishing field of creative reference, I adopted a very loose approach to the Theme and Variations form in my composition. To emulate this movement from broad openness to a narrower focus, I sought to introduce the variations before the theme which is presented hesitantly towards the end of the piece. Although the first variation sequences at the outset might stand as thematic, the harmonic instability of not starting firmly in the dominant key of D minor combined with the structural instability of standard melodic form—primarily in disregarding standard eight measure lyrical song structure—does not ground it as a recognizable theme from which variations emanate.

To convey the shifting moods of hopefulness and devastation—that, within each day, seemed to occur in rapid succession if not concurrently—I tried to create an interplay between stable harmonic structures with discordant ones. The stability of major thirds and “perfect” fifths, chords which in the Western European tradition convey harmonic stability, contrast with the grinding tension of the semi-tone and the tri-tone “diminished fifth” interval, known colloquially as the “devil’s chord.”

Stylistically, I used meandering references to sequences that might be heard in one of the six Bach Suites, a Vivaldi sonata, or even some of the later Romantic era cello literature, such as Brahms’s Sonata no.1 in E Minor. Such resonances mimic my own musical explorations during practice sessions that became an essential survival strategy for me during the long evenings of the pandemic closure.

Opting for a theme and variations form felt intensely appropriate given the repetitive nature of one’s life confined to the domestic sphere. Likewise, repeated sections within each variation section were used to reinforce a sense of obsessive repetitiveness. Of course, change did occur for us but the unfolding of one’s daily routines seemed so unexpectedly disjointed. Each variation, therefore, is of varied length, barely offering recognizable material from earlier variations; a situation made even more vulnerable because the unifying melodic material from a recognizable theme is not present. But the theme does emerge toward the end of the composition; an acknowledgement that it was only after the grinding, uncertain months of April and May 2020, that a sort of clarity emerged: we seemed to be able to take our uncertainty and turn it into a routine, albeit an indeterminate one. The eventual introduction of a simple, minimalist theme tries to convey this vaguely adopted acceptance. Yet the inclusion of a coda—played using harmonics to convey an eerily uncanny sound—reminds us that finding sequential ordering or closure within our personal lives seems futile. This concluding passage introduces a new unrelated key which, in traditional classical harmonic structure, is not permitted; the introductory dominant key must be used to conclude the composition for full closure. This harmonic disregard need not be interpreted, as we are all painfully aware of how quickly our universally accepted norms have been forever altered. One hopeful glimmer may occur in that the harmonics, if played with the usual pressure exerted on the string, would end up sounding atonally nonsensical. In playing using a non-standard approach, a new hesitatingly melodic form might be heard.

In naming the piece, I tried to convey this re-interpretation of accepted conventions. I cannot take full credit for the “hacking” of naming standards in musical form: the title occurred when the recording engineer Ashton Price at Morph Studios misinterpreted my instructions and named the recording file “Variations in Theme.” It seemed unexpectedly appropriate; a phenomenon that we are all becoming familiar with, where quirks of fate seem to have now become our fate.

Music has been an important theme in my life; at times playing a prominently distinctive role, while at others, serving as the distant murmur of background music. Until this recent pandemic, I hadn’t fully appreciated its role as a survival strategy through offering a form of evolving ritual (McRae 327, 329). The two concepts appear antithetical; ritual seems stoically unchanging, but music—although requiring a dedication to ritualistic learning by rote through practicing scales and technique—is pure phenomenology. During the covid crisis, music was brought once again to the forefront of my life. I practiced the first through fourth Bach Suites incessantly, but each night I played, the news items of the day threaded through my playing. Sometimes this news cycle seemed a duet partner in performance, at others it became a music critic or even a hostile audience, especially as the crisis deepened. But this ritual of playing the Bach Suites connected me to a rich history stretching back to 1717–23, when J.S. Bach composed the works while Kapellmeister in Köthen (Siblin). The Bach Suites I struggled through during the midst of my covid pandemic was a uniquely personal experience intimately connected to my evolving relationship with music; but this process could only exist within the broader ritualism of music history. So my life becomes a ritualistic theme facing a world of variations, yet paradoxically a set of evolving variations based on the world as a theme.

Works Cited

McRae, Chris. “Singing “I Will Survive”: Performance as Evolving Relationship,” Cultural Studies ß à Critical Methodologies, vol.10, no.4, 2010, pp. 326 – 333.

Shoemaker, Deanna B. "Kind of Blue (Music for the Muse): Re/playing Autoethnographic Stories through Music." Text and Performance Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 3, 2014, pp. 321-325.

  • Shoemaker describes “Miles Away from ‘The Cool,’” by and performed by Chris McRae (Marion Kleinau Theatre. Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. 3–5 Dec. 2009. Performance).

Siblin, Eric. The Cello Suites: J. S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece. House of Anansi Press, 2009.

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