Dr. Christopher Hopkins' scholarship integrates electroacoustic music composition, computer modeling for creative processes in composition, dialectics among historical musical styles, and performance of Renaissance and Baroque music for the viola da gamba. His recent supporting research includes algorithmic musical logic based on historical and interdisciplinary models, and analysis of chord-color symmetry.
In 2022, Hopkins was awarded the MacDowell fellowship.
The MacDowell fellowship provides uninterrupted time to work on artistic projects in a private studio situated in the New Hampshire woodlands. The program is situated on the former estate of the composer Edward MacDowell, and modeled on his own use of a private daytime retreat in the woods. It was the first program of its kind, started as The MacDowell Colony in 1907. At any given time there are several writers of fiction and non-fiction, poets, painters, film makers, composers, and other kinds of creative artists in residence. The residents meet together most evenings for dinner and presentations of current work.
Hopkins worked in the Kirby Studio, which was particularly gratifying because many of the composers he met when first starting to compose, such as Lucas Foss and Aaron Copland, had worked in this same studio. There is a tradition, started in the 1920s, of signing the current “tombstone” plaque as you depart. These are arranged chronologically on the studio walls, so you can find the names of everyone who has worked in that studio since that time. The studio was also just perfect for Hopkins' project, which involved setting up three musical instruments, some recording equipment, and a large desk for writing. Learn more about MacDowell.
The Galilei Dialogues project is a kind of scholarly and creative dialectic across musical eras. The project has two stages. First, a scholarly-informed performing edition of the Contrapunti a Due Voci by Vincenzo Galilei, which was published in Florence in the year 1584. Second then, an original composition Hopkins is calling Galilei Dialogues that responds to both aesthetic and constructive features of Galilei’s musical style. Most all of Hopkins' creative work has involved extensive background research into techniques and philosophies of composing, sometimes quite technically modern such as modeling creative processes using computer programming, and at other times quite historical such as researching music from Ancient Greece, Medieval France, and most recently, Renaissance Italy. But Galilei Dialogues is the first project in which Hopkins is editing and producing a scholarly report while responding with his own original composition. It is also the first project writing a composition to be played on historical instruments, in this case violas da gamba.
Hopkins' interest in Galilei stems from several characteristics. First of all, Galilei may be a recognizably familiar family name, as he had a famous son, Galileo Galilei. Like Galileo, Vincenzo was interested in scientific methods and published treatises in dialogue form. There is some evidence that a young Galileo may have participated in his father’s acoustical experiments and gained early experience with empirical methods this way. There is also some parallelism in the structure of argument in their most famous dialogs. While Galileo wrote a Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, contrasting old and new theories of the position of Earth in the Cosmos, Vincenzo wrote a Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music. Both Galileo and Vincenzo wrote their dialogs in Italian rather than Latin, and thus spoke more directly to a Humanist intellectual audience. On his own, Vincenzo is rarely given more than a paragraph in music history books together with his colleagues in the Florentine Camerata, and this really only as a music theorist and sarcastic critic of conservative contemporaries. Little to nothing is mentioned of his contributions as a composer, and Hopkins hopes his project will help Galilei's music to become better known.
Hopkins regularly performs Renaissance music for the viola da gamba. He first came into contact with one of the Galilei pieces in a collection of compositions from several Italian Renaissance composers. There was just one composition in the collection by Galilei, which was provided with the title Fantasia. He found it to be rather beautiful and sought to discover more about Galilei's work as a composer. Eventually, Hopkins found a digital facsimile from the collection of the Bilioteca Nationale Firenza of a 1584 publication of twenty-nine "contrapunti" in which he found the composition that stimulated his search in the first place. “You can imagine my delight: I had found twenty-eight more!” The 1584 publication is in Renaissance musical notation, which is readable only by specialists in the subject, but since historical notations happen to be one of his great interests Hopkins was prepared to take on a project to transcribe these into modern notation for himself and other ‘historical music performance’ colleagues. This then became Hopkins' MacDowell project and subsequently enlarged into a research grant proposal to the CEAH.
When asked about surprising discoveries within the work, Hopkins responded with several. "The first surprising thing I learned from Galilei’s writings and compositions was how similar were his philosophical concerns and methods of research to composers such as myself, working almost 540 years later. Galilei was a self-declared modernist who rejected convention and wrote much research-based experimental music and theory. He was an expertise instrumentalist (his instrument was lute) and wrote extensively on technical matters concerning performance practices. And he was an empiricist, folding out high-minded theory from direct perception and practice. All characteristics with which I am in complete sympathy."
The more specifically surprising thing Hopkins discovered was the implicitly didactic nature of the Contrapunti themselves, and how this presented guidance for his own transcription and notation decisions. "The Contrapunti are abstract compositions, that is, they are not settings of a poetic text, and also are not written even for particular instruments. It was common in the Renaissance to publish compositions that were adaptable to varying instrumentations, but not so common to be organized to represent techniques of composition. Not to get too technical here, the collection demonstrates writing in affective tonal modes and mixtures of these in a single composition, many more than our modern major and minor scales. The melodies are also situated in ‘airs’, an Ancient Greek concept of sound quality with which Galilei was familiar, and often use irregular rhythms that recall dramatic recitation. All of this is only found implicitly from choices of clefs and style of rhythmic notation, both of which differ from our modern notational practice. This discovery meant that my process of editing for performance on violas da gamba had to consider how the modes, airs, and rhythms were to be maintained rather than lost. It was not just a simple update of the same notes to look more modern."
Hopkins applied for a CEAH research grant in 2022 seeking support for the project. The CEAH research grant allowed him to expand the scope of both the research and creative work on the project started at MacDowell. "The grant provided travel funds to work with professional musical consultants whose expertise complements my own, in effect providing in-person ‘beta tests’ with immediate discussion of both prescribed and emergent issues. There really is no substitute for this process because musical performance is not something investigated in surveys or interviews at a distance. Timing in discussions is critical and needs to be coordinated with hearing the real sound of the instruments together. Also, professional-quality players of these instruments, the violas da gamba, are few. For example, there is only one other player in Iowa besides myself." Like Galilei, Hopkins works empirically. "Actually trying alternative editing and composing decisions myself and with the consultants has made a hugely positive difference."
Composers, especially perhaps research-based composers such as Hopkins, always balance their music-cultural heritage with a need to be innovative. "Most often, innovative musical thinking is left to the unconscious background, without an analysis of sources and without any kind of verification outside of the good aesthetic results. However, what work like the Galilei Dialogues project represents is a more consciously thought-out and documented instance of scholarly creativity.” Hopkins has been tracking carefully the research and his methods, and will be able to take this into scholarly musical presentations and publications. “The research outcomes will be very exacting in describing relationships between Renaissance musical ideas to those assumed today in music composition." Recalling that Galilei himself wrote a Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music, Hopkins considers the project "a dialogue on a dialogue."