Princeton University Concerts’ new series, “PUC125 — Performances Up Close,” debuts Sunday, October 11, with presentations of “Songs of the Sybil” on the stage of Richardson Auditorium at 2 and 4:30 p.m.
“The idea of the concerts is meant to be casual, something that someone can drop into with no prior experience and then go away an hour later having experienced something unique,” says Marna Seltzer, the project’s designer and Princeton University Concerts director.
The six-part PUC125 — running parallel to the PUC’s regular subscription series — has listeners sharing the stage with performers. Performances last for an hour, have no intermission, generally combine works from remote regions of the musical spectrum, and are framed by a specially designed art installation.
The series is also a prelude to the concert series’ 125th anniversary celebration in 2018.
“Songs of the Sibyl” — which takes its name from the ancient Greek oracles that made prophecies at 12 holy sites — combines ancient and new works performed by Gallicantus, a London-based male vocalists group. Founded in 2008 and directed by Princeton’s director of choral activities, Gabriel Crouch, Gallicantus literally means “rooster song” and refers to the monastic services held just before dawn.
The inaugural concert includes a composition by 11th century German composer Hildegard von Bingen, called “The Sibyl of the Rhine” because of her prophesies, and the 16th century Franco-Flemish composer Orlande de Lassus, who wrote the only complete setting of the 12 sibylline prophecies of classical antiquity.
Crouch says Lassus’ work is “one of the most adventurous and peculiar pieces written in the Renaissance, and it has an extraordinarily intimate feeling. This is wildly esoteric music for its time. It’s music to be in the middle of.” The piece has also been recognized as having chord progressions associated with the 20th century.
The older works are paired with new pieces by Princeton composers and professors Dan Trueman and Dmitri Tymoczko, both commissioned to create new settings for de Lassus’ composition. Trueman’s contribution is influenced by ancient Irish music; Tymoczko’s draws on material whose roots range from the Renaissance to rock.
Interviewed by telephone from his home in Philadelphia, Tymoczko talks about bringing the sibylline prophecies of classical antiquity up to date. “In the modern era we have no prophecy and no sibyls. But we do have statistics. We know that five percent of kids born in Baltimore will have asthma. Mixing the language of statistics and the language of prophecy can make you think of statistics as prophecy.”
“You can put an exact number on the chance that a child will encounter something bad,” he says. “Personally, this was a moving idea for me because I have two young children.”
To some extent Tymoczko follows Lassus’ pattern in his composition, though their texts differ. While Lassus used a classical Latin text, Tymoczko uses an English text by poet Jeff Dolven, a Princeton English professor. Tymoczko adopts Lassus’ Latin title, “Prophetiae Sibyllarum” (Prophecies of the Sibyls).
Both composers give geographical names to sections of their work: Lassus named the 12 sections of his work after the sites where sibyls foretold the future; Tymoczko names the six sections of his work by using Latin names for the six U.S. cities on which Dolven built his brief, carefully constructed stanzas.
A prose summary of Dolven’s poetry reveals the U.S. cities as Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, and Camden. Further, it reports statistics for the numbers of children in those cities who suffer from breathing problems, diabetes, homelessness, an abuse, and for death in infancy.
Tymoczko used Dolven’s text to create a 15-minute piece that changes meter as it unfolds. The work is in recognizable keys, rather than choosing to avoid a key center. “That’s very important when you’re writing for solo voices,” he says. “It’s hard to sing atonal chords. Most of my music is tonal. I’m influenced by jazz, rock, and Debussy.”
Like Crouch, Tymoczko finds the 16th century de Lassus piece compelling and says, “De Lassus’ ‘Sybilline Prophecies’ is beautiful and strange. If I could go back in history and have dinner with somebody, I would choose de Lassus. I would like to know what he was thinking. It’s so different from anything else written at the same time. It’s very chromatic. The first words of the Lassus piece are chromatic songs. My Philadelphia segment quotes Lassus’ opening.”
Tymoczko, 45, was born in Northampton, Massachusetts, the oldest of three children. His late father was a philosophy professor at Smith College. His mother currently teaches philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Teaching philosophy is endemic in Tymoczko’s immediate family. His wife, Elisabeth Camp, teaches philosophy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. The couple lives in Philadelphia with their son, Lukas, born in 2008, and their daughter, Katya, born in 2012.
“My parents liked music,” Tymoczko remembers. “My dad always wished he had more exposure to music, and he exposed me to music early.
At age six, Tymoczko started studying piano. At about 13, he turned to guitar. “I don’t play as much as I would like,” he says.
Designing his own major in composition, music theory, and aesthetics, Tymoczko studied at Harvard. Thanks to a Rhodes Scholarship, he pursued philosophy at Oxford University. His Ph. D in music composition comes from the University of California, Berkeley.
Winner of numerous prizes and awards for his compositions, Tymoczko is currently a professor of music at Princeton and has taught composition and music theory since 2002. His book, “A Geometry of Music,” published by Oxford University Press lays bare his notion that common features distinguish quality western music from the 11th century to the present. Investigating what makes music sound good, he does not distinguish between motets and Motown.
In addition to “Music Theory Through Composition and Performances,” a course for music majors that focuses on melody and harmony, Tymoczko presents an introductory version of “A Geometry of Music.”
Tymoczko’s writings have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including some in his academic field. Standard boundaries have no effect on his range.
Tymoczko’s 1996 Atlantic Monthly article, “The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher,” deals with philosopher/psychologist William James and his understanding of religious mysticism while stoned. “It’s not the sort of thing academic philosophers think about,” Tymoczko says.
“The Geometry of Musical Chords,” published in 2006 by Science magazine, roughly 130 years after its founding, was the first music theory article to appear in the publication. A second Tymoczko article followed in 2008. The prominent publication is the academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Tymoczko’s geographical reach extends beyond Princeton. Combining music and family, for four years, he has been a member of the composition faculty at the August highSCORE festival in Pavia, Italy, a contemporary music festival offering master classes. “It’s something I like doing,” he says. “I meet a wider range of composers than I would meet at Princeton. I go with my family every other year and tour in Italy with my wife and kids.”
Just now Tymoczko has a full plate at Princeton. Before “Songs of the Sibyl” takes place, Tymoczko will participate, along with Trueman and Crouch, in recording the Gallicantus CD that will include both old and new pieces on the Gallicantus program.
Gallicantus presents Songs of the Sybil, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, October 11, 2 and 4:30 p.m. $25, $10 for students.
Other PUC125 events include:
Calidore String Quartet, PUC125 Series. “Composers’ Last Words, Part One.” Tuesday, October 27, 6 and 9 p.m.
David Greilsammer. Piano and prepared piano. Tuesday, December 1, 6 and 9 p.m.
Ebene String Quartet. Wednesday, March 9, 6 and 9 p.m.
Escher String Quartet. “Composers’ Last Words, Part Two.” Thursday, March 24, 6 and 9 p.m.
Julien Labro. “The Big Squeeze” on accordion/bandoneon/accordina. Thursday, April 14, 6 and 9 p.m.
609-258-6024 or www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org.