Music Monday: Tabakova: Modetudes

This week, we pivot from the saturated world of the orchestra to the leaner, more tightly focused world of the solo piano. Dobrinka Tabakova was born in Plodiv, Bulgaria in 1980, but she moved to London in 1991 and has lived there ever since. Altho her family is full of doctors and scientists, they were also avid music-lovers, and it didn't take long for Tabakova to start gaining recognition — she won her first prize (the Jean-Frédéric Perrenoud prize) at the age of 14, and has racked up numerous accolades since, including the honor of writing an anthem for Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee. All of the performances currently listed on her website are in Europe, but with her prodigious talent, I'm sure it's only a matter of time before we start hearing her works played on this side of the pond as well.

Ask a music theorist to define a "mode" in music, and you're likely to get a rather convoluted answer — the Wikipedia page on the subject is daunting even for me — but leaving aside numerous technical complications and nuances, a good rough definition is that a mode is a category of scales. So while we musicians have to practice our G Major scale, our C Major scale, and so on, those would all be in the same category of the "Major" mode. (Similarly, G Minor and C Minor and F Minor and so on could all be called "Minor" modes, tho minor modes are often altered in important ways for the sake of harmony.) Classically trained Western musicians tend to focus on just these two, but even without getting into the wonderfully strange world of synthetic modes, the modern Western scalar system has seven: Lydian, Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, Phrygian, and Locrian.

But instead of dryly describing how each one of these works with vague words about their respective sound palettes, it's much better to listen, and that's where Tabakova's Modetudes* comes in; she wrote it specifically to serve as an introduction to the modal system. (Don't think it's merely didactic, tho! It's a delightful piece of music in its own right.) We begin with fluttering gestures in the dorian mode, which is somewhere between the standard major and minor. In another mode, these might sound agitated or even harsh, but here there's a softness and gentleness to them as they feather out into delicate arabesques. Next up is lydian, the brightest of the modes. Tabakova eases off on the rhythmic energy here, and uses that brightness to paint a scene of swirling wonder. Then we get ionian, the traditional major mode. The movement begins in the highest register of the piano, like the piercing ringing of jubilant bells, but the faltering accompaniment fills in as the music descends, ultimately giving a full rendition of the ionian music before the movement's end.

As the resonance from the ionian movement fades, we stumble into the dark, numbing locrian interlude. It's the darkest mode, with all the notes scrunched as close to the bottom as they will go, and it's a very difficult mode to write in due to its harmonic instability. (There are passages where it sounds as tho Tabakova is making a few subtle chromatic alterations to get things to work; I don't have access to a score, so I can't check directly, but I couldn't blame her if she did. Locrian is hard.) Things thaw a bit in the phrygian mode, where we return to the flighty music of the opening. It's picked up an edge, tho, and sounds considerably more pensive and unsure. This pensive mood carries over into the aeolian movement (also known as the "natural minor"), but it feels static, at a loss, trapped in a cycle of disoriented repetitions. Fortunately, the mixolydian sweeps in to sweep this away. It's a mode that's very common in jazz music, but it's also shows up in a good deal of eastern European folk music, and this exuberant movement sounds much more like the latter as it bounces along to its rousing finish in ⅞ time.

*The Spotify album gives the title as Modétudes, but the accent is absent on the composer's own website, so I'm going to defer to her on this one.