Music of the Spheres

Mike Tauben – Saudade

The requirements of the competition were very clear.  The page posted in January 2014 began with a description that might appeal to any classical music lover:

Simply Stunning …  That’s what the audience will say when your piece is premiered and recorded in May 2014.  Future performers will add this exquisite piece to their repertoire.  Listeners will beg to hear it again and again.  Your piece will be discussed and studied along with Debussy’s “Beau Soir”, Fauré’s “Après un rêve”, Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise”, and others as an example of expressive melody lines, gorgeous harmonies, and pieces that violinists and pianists love to play.

The requirements went on to say that the piece would be for violin and piano or viola and piano, must be between 3 – 4 minutes duration, should be accessible to general audiences, interesting to other composers and playable by amateur and professional musicians.

As one of the presenters of this competition, I was hoping for high quality entries, and some very special new music.  These new pieces would be a vital part of a special concert to be given in May 2014.  One of the best string players I had ever met would be leaving our area in September to attend conservatory, and the entire community was longing to hear her play one more time.  We wanted some exquisite music for an exquisite performer.

Composers responded quickly, and with great eagerness.  “Stunning is a tall order”, said one composer, “but I’ll enjoy the approach.”  Composers from all over the world signed up for this competition – 77 composers in all.  They were given two months to complete their music.  When the actual scores started pouring in, we presenters were thrilled.  There was some truly stunning music in these international entries!

As a presenter I didn’t get to vote on the short list, but I still had my favorites.  I watched the judges voting with great interest, hoping that my favorites would make it through that first elimination round.  Most of them did!

One of my very favorites was a piece entitled “Saudade”, by London composer Mike Tauben.  There was something about that piece that really appealed to me.  Perhaps it was the restrained, subtle longing in the violin melody, or the soft murmur of the piano accompaniment.  It might have been the effortless way the composer moved through various tonal centers, or the subito pianissimo section that always left me breathless. Maybe it was the contrast between the delicacy of the soft sections and the great buildup in the final climax.

Or perhaps it was the name itself.  “Saudade” – what a beautiful word.  I didn’t even know what the title meant, and still it spoke volumes to me!  The soft syllables sounded like music, and touched into a sense of wonder.  I looked up “Saudade” and found an entire treatise on the word, by blogger Jasmine Garsd:

I’ve always been fascinated that there are certain words with no direct equivalents in other languages. It goes to the idea that life is so varied and complex, it will spawn words as distinctive as snowflakes.

The natives of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina have the word “mamihlapinatapai” for a look shared between two people when both are wishing the other would do something neither wants to. In Thai there is “greng-jai” — when you don’t want someone to do something for you because it would be a bother for him or her.

Perhaps my favorite of these elusive words is “saudade”, a Portuguese and Galician term that is a common fixture in the literature and music of Brazil, Portugal, Cape Verde and beyond. The concept has many definitions, including a melancholy nostalgia for something that perhaps has not even happened. It often carries an assurance that this thing you feel nostalgic for will never happen again. My favorite definition of saudade is by Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo: “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”

Wow.  Someone else was just intrigued by the word as I was.  Several someones, in fact!  “A pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy”.  What an astounding definition! I’m neither Portuguese nor Brazilian, but this piece certainly expressed a feeling I knew very well.  It felt like trying to grasp something just barely out of reach, so close you could almost taste it, but never quite attainable.  It reminded me of a line in a Philip Larkin poem, “Like something almost being said”.  The key word was “almost”.

Saudade made the Simply Stunning short list of eleven pieces.  Sadly for me, it wasn’t one of the performer’s three winners, nor the general public’s two winners.  I was disappointed that it would not be one of the three winning pieces performed in the May 2014 concert, but eager to find superb, professional performers to play it along with the other pieces to be premiered in September 2014.

Our New Music Symposium in September was impressive.  Some of the best performers in our state came together to perform the eight short-listed pieces that had not been performed the previous May.  The audience included teachers, students, composers, performers and non-musicians who just loved music.  We listened to each new piece and then talked about 21st century music.  The audience was divided between those who favored the avant garde, the shocking, the totally unexpected and those who still preferred their music to be beautiful, tonal, expressive.  That second group was in the majority;  Saudade was one of their favorites.

After the Symposium, all eleven pieces were “stored in the vault”, so to speak.  They were posted on the Internet, so people would be able to listen to them forever.  But the discussion and exuberance about the competition finally died down, almost a year after it began.

For the next year, I listened to Saudade often.  Sometimes I just wanted something beautiful to paint the day; other times I wanted the bittersweet longing to put shape to events of the moment.  I enjoyed the piece just as much on the 100th hearing as I had on the first!

Then, on Valentine’s Day of 2016, I got an email from the composer:

I just recorded that little piece from 2 years ago and thought I’d send you the link since it was your competition that spurred me to write it.

He attached a link to a YouTube video, the studio recording of Saudade.  What a great gift!  Two years later, and the piece has taken on a new life in this excellent performance:

Competitions can be daunting or delightful, intimidating or inspiring. I consider “Simply Stunning” and “Saudade” examples of a composition competition that birthed several success stories, including the wonderful video posted above.

Hope you enjoy the piece!


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