Big Dancer at the Fire’s Mouth: Another “Remodeled” Piece

I’ve been taking some time this last 6 months to catch up with some compositional “chores”- remodeling some past pieces that I never quite felt had found their final form but that had serious value and promise. My Horn Sonata became a Horn Concerto in December, as I reported in my last blog entry. Now I have taken a piece written 17 years ago for the multi-media performance group Wild Cheetahs in Portland, Oregon and turned it into an ecstatic vocalise for cello and three percussionists. “Big Dancer” for soprano voice and two log drum players has become “Big Dancer at the Fire’s Mouth” for cello, 2 marimbists and 1 pecussionist.

The original piece was a dance-theater piece for soprano singer/actor and two percussionists playing seven gorgeous wooden log drums created by Nova Diversified- a Portland, Oregon art/craft company. They were playable art objects made for coffee tables and display that also sounded wonderfully funky. Like any good non-western instrument, each had a unique sound, timbre and tuning that was not quite standard or consistent, lending each instrument a quiet wildness that I really liked. My percussion friends in Wild Cheetahs offered to help publicize these wonderful instruments in return for a free set that they could use in concert. I was commissioned to write a piece for them to perform in concerts. I was able to keep a set for about 10 weeks while I experimented with them, fell in love with them, and came up with an invented scale and harmonic system based on their pitches and timbres. Then of course I had to turn them back over to the players which I hated to do!

In keeping with the log drum sounds and their “wildness” I chose a text from a Kung (Bushman) tribal shaman in Namibia that had been notated and included in a doctoral dissertation from Harvard in the 1970’s. “Just yesterday, friend, the giraffe came and took me again. God came and took me and said: Why is it that people are singing yet you’re not dancing? When he spoke, he took me with him and we left this place. We traveled until we came to a wide body of water. It was a river. He took me to the river. When people sing, I go into a trance. I trance and put N/um into people. For I am a big dancer…”

The text went on at considerable length with wonderfully intriguing details about lying at the fire’s mouth, then entering the fire and climbing “the threads of the wells…”

The log drums combined to create a sound a bit like surreal mbiras (thumb pianos) and in concert the singer sang as she moved and danced in costume like a entranced shaman.

By the time we had rehearsed, performed and toured the piece in a Wild Cheetah’s show for about 2 months, the strain of playing complex, busy, loud music on these delicate wooden instruments began to show. The pitches got “wilder”, the timbres “fuzzier” and finally the instruments just lost the ability to play the piece at all. We had found the outer musical limits of these beautiful art objects, and played them into destruction. There seemed to be a sort of poetic quality to this- like the shaman, they had exhausted themselves in their quest to create beauty, and now they needed to return to the fire themselves…

During performances I felt that the piece worked very well as multi-media theater. But when abstracted into pure aural listening on recording, I always felt that it lost something. It needed the visuals- the costume, dance, lighting, the live audience… I put it on the shelf and thought about it occasionally for 17 years.

When I returned to it a few weeks ago, I began by feeding it into the Finale software program and listening to the piece using marimba and vocal sounds. I tried other instruments- bassoon, baritone sax, even electric guitar, to replace the voice. Finally I tried cello and something clicked, as though the piece had found the sound it had been looking for all these years.

I quickly began editing by eraser- chopping out measures- even whole phrases- that didn’t need to be there in the absence of theatrical movement or even words. A few places received some repeated gestures or measures, but by and large it was a matter of pruning a slightly overly indulged bush until it began to show a new kind of compositional shape and flow. Even without the funky timbres of the original log drum instruments, the harmonic system still worked well and retained some of the wildness of the original. And I am toying with the idea of asking the marimba players to help me experiment with “prepared marimba”- placing dobs of putty or beanbags on various bars to change the timbre of them from pure to impure… western to non-western…

The cellist gets to play 10 minutes of ecstatic, upwardly climbing lines- Scriabin for cello perhaps- accompanied by these marimbas, a rough rattle and a vibraslap…

Listen to the sound clip here as performed by my trusty HP laptop.

So, who out there wants to premiere this new incarnation of a mystical shaman’s dance?