Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society

The hidden melodies of Jerusalem

The word “contour” has a wonderful ring to it, reminiscent of the two words that writer Gertrude Stein claimed were the most beautiful in the English language: “cellar door”.  “Contour” rolls off our tongues like warm butter; indeed if I were a baker I would love to serve buttered “contour rolls”.  Likewise, the contours of Jerusalem’s hills possess a grace like no others: soft, gentle curves, unobtrusive, and reminiscent of traditional Eastern music.  With this inspiring backdrop, I decided to compose a series of melodies using the outline of Jerusalem’s hills as an inspirational guide.

The method of composing using land’s contours is not unique; Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos used the mountains in his native land quite often, perhaps the most famous being his Symphony No. 6 (Sobre a linha das montanhas do Brasil– “On the Outline of the Mountains of Brazil”).   Villa-Lobos graphed the mountains’ contours, their rise and fall, and transferred them to paper to generate pitch and and duration in melodic forms.  He also did this when visiting America, sketching the New York City skyline.  As his sketches showed sudden changes and shifts, so did his music: Villa-Lobos’ melodies were quick, lively and rich with contrasts (see “Coda”, below).

In contrast to Brazil’s jolting mountains, Jerusalem’s contours are slow-paced, mesmerizing and changing in minute degrees.  Like American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert homes, that blend in with their natural surroundings, so too do melodies that mirror Jerusalem’s hills. The melodies should not conquer the land but rather should reflect it’s very nature, seeking to become one with it. For my musical tableau I have chosen to work with eight different views of Jerusalem’s hills and surroundings.

The following is a “World Premiere”, and you, the readers/listeners, are the first audience. For that, I thank you.  I have chosen a somewhat unusual instrument to play: the Alto Flute in G, a deeper pitched, slightly breathier instrument than the traditional Flute in C.  It is also reminiscent of the traditional bamboo Japanese Shakuhatchi, which is folk-like and can bridge many emotions from an eerie sadness to deep joy.

There are several ways to view the following examples: 1) Melodies can be heard alone by clicking on the blue link title.  2) Each picture, situated below the blue link, can be clearly studied  3) Melody and picture can be viewed simultaneously by creating two open screens. 4) Finally, melodies and pictures can also be experienced together via each YouTube video Note:  Melody #1 uses all four curves, starting from the furthest to the closest, from left to right; the last (the closest, in dark green) rises from the lowest to the highest point; Melody #2  has been created from two successive melodic interpretations of the same contour (i.e.repeated twice). Melodies #3-#8 use the primary top level contours.

Melody #1

Melody #2

Melody #3

Embed from Getty Images

Melody #4

Melody #5

Melody #6

Melody #7

Melody #8

Coda: Music of Heitor Villa-Lobos, Symphony No. 6 and New York Skyline Melody

Villa-Lobos, Symphony No. 6

Heitor Villa-Lobos, New York Sky Line Melody, for piano.

About the Author
Stephen Horenstein is a composer, researcher and educator. His repertoire of musical works has been performed and recorded worldwide. He has been a recipient of the Israel Prime Minister's Prize for Composers and the National Endowment of the Arts (USA). His teaching has included Bennington College, Brandeis University, Tel Aviv University, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance; residencies at Stanford University, York University, California Institute of the Arts, and others. He is Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, established in 1988 to bring the music of our time to a wider audience.
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