Nocturne: a dialog with Kurt Cobain

I was selected as the “Commissioned Composer of the Year” for 2016 by the Washington State Music Teachers Association (WSMTA)- a branch of the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA). This meant writing a piece for a premiere at their state conference at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, for which I would provide the performers, and their costs. This meant writing for a small ensemble not a large one! Furthermore the association is largely piano teachers, with many voice teachers as well. When I had done this commission project back in 2001 I chose to write a set of songs- Bringing in the Tides: Seven Songs on Poems by 20th Century American Women Poets.  This time I decided to fulfill two requests with one piece and write something for my colleague at Pacific Lutheran University, piano professor Oksana Ejokina, who had asked for a piece a year earlier. It was a plus that she was a member of WSMTA and would probably be going to the conference anyway.

I asked Oksana what sort of piece she thought I should write. She suggested a piece for advanced but still young players (high school and college) which would introduce them to “extended techniques”- those ways of sound-making that are beyond the usual technique. In the case of piano this often means reaching inside the piano to pluck, strum, tap or otherwise alter the sound of the piano strings vibrating. John Cage first became famous for his “prepared piano” pieces in the 1940’s for which the player must follow a detailed chart of where to place screws, bolts, erasers and other objects amongst the strings, turning the piano into a kind of “gamelan” percussion ensemble. Composers love this of course! Pianists worry about it, and piano owners- individuals, concert halls and colleges, hate it! It can of course damage the strings of your $100,000 Steinway or leave the owner with a paperclip stuck down under the strings that vibrates like a snare drum snare every time you play a G#… I thus decided not to “prepare” the piano in any way, but simply to use the hands and maybe a guitar pick to engage the strings in interesting ways.

Since these extended techniques are unfamiliar (“weird”) to many younger players, as is most 20th century music after all, Oksana suggested I make the piece “programmatic” with a story or descriptive subject that would help players and their audiences understand why these techniques and sounds were useful for the piece.

Armed with these ideas, I then thought about my daughter Clara, a student at a popular music conservatory in Liverpool, England and her aspirations to become a popular music artist. She and I share a love of the history of pop music and its creator-performers, and frequently share books, articles and videos. Together we watched the recent  documentaries on Amy Winehouse and on Kurt Cobain, and talked about “The 27 Club”- that group of pop artists who all died at age 27: Jimi, Jim, Janice, and now Kurt and Amy. She sees these as tragic losses of important artists, as do I, but I also now see them through the eyes of a parent: as grown children still struggling through the difficulties of becoming oneself in a complex, often contradictory world. To do so with the eyes and judgments of the world upon you seems too often to be more than a person can bear.

I decided thus to make a piece called Nocturne, a kind of dark, after-midnight meditation that would honor Kurt Cobain, using fragments of his iconic (and breakout) song Smells Like Teen Spirit. The song is full of very interesting musical ideas and the title seemed perfect for my purposes: an “In Memoriam” for an individual and for too many other young people.

I recommend listening to the official music video of the song, available on Youtube, before listening to my piece: Nocturne. The original song is built largely on a rhythm: short-short-long, and a repeating four chord progression: F-Bb-Ab-Db. The modality (major or minor) is not clear as the power chords are mostly played without third- just the raw root and fifth. But the progression itself suggests fm minor of course. It also features a frequently stated perfect fourth played as harmonics up high- C-F, like little bells. This curiously delicate touch always struck me as special- like a fragile cry for help from the guitar of an otherwise screaming singer. Several fragments of the melody become my primary motivic material, out of which I construct the first slow section of a classic Field or Chopin Nocturne. This is where most of the “extended techniques” are used- plucking strings, patting them, playing them on the keys while damping them inside, etc. This creates a surreal quality that matches both the gloom of the song and my sense of sorrow and fear for the lives of young people in an intense world. The “normal” notes sound even more beautiful, perhaps even nostalgic amidst these more dark and dangerous sounds.

The middle “faster” section of the nocturne form utilizes the deepest range of the piano, to create a carefully composed “muddy” texture. This is “grunge” we’re talking about here after all! The motivic material is extended now with an idea from the “bridge” or “break” of the song in which Cobain uses another progression: F-F#-B/Bb-Ab, and a vocal “hey!” There is a lot of pitch-bending in the guitar which is why I decided to mix B and Bb chords for some serious dissonance. And that F# chord is cool! You have to admire a self-taught rock writer who invented for himself what could be described as a “Neapolitan chord” or a “Implied Phrygian mode!”  Throughout this middle section, the “rock ‘n roll” quality comes out much more clearly. Gone is the surreal gloom and nostalgia and foregrounded is the rage and the rhythmic power of the song. (I hope younger players enjoy the opportunity to rock out at contest or during their recital! Older players too!) It builds in successive waves to a big climax like a screech. The low extended techniques return with a vengeance to call the darkness back in, and the piece collapses back to its opening gestures, but this time like the voice of doom. The closing recapitulates the opening, ending with a low patted boom that rings to silence.

In the end, my colleague Oksana could not play the premiere as her duties as Music Director of the Icicle Creek Music Festival in Leavenworth, Washington conflicted with the conference dates. But my heroic and talented colleague- fellow composer Clement Reid, graciously stepped in and learned the piece and played it beautifully on June 23. Many thanks to him for his performance and his many suggestions on fingering, etc.

Here is the recording of the premiere at Whitman College.



December: a Meditation on Advent

For the 2015 installment of the annual Christmas concerts produced by Pacific Lutheran University I was asked to write a short piece for orchestra that would fit in with the premiere of a choral-orchestral work by JAC Redford about Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” along with the usual mix of seasonal pieces both choral and audience participation.

When I looked at the existing mix of repertoire, I decided that what was missing was an homage to the really early traditional Advent- Christmas songs of the Lutheran church, and thus decided to create a piece that arranged a number of those 16th-17th century chorales and hymns into a narrative, moving us from Advent into Christmas. Since it was to be positioned as the opening of the second half of the concert right after intermission, this seemed also like a good way to review the ritual progress of the evening before continuing on to the end.

Fortunately the Lutheran Book of Worship very clearly organizes music according to season and so I was able to go through and pick those early pieces that I thought were best suited to my purpose and sequence them into a dramatic narrative moving from darkness and waiting into brilliance and light.

This kind of “gebrauchsmusik” (music for use) has always pleased me, as a way for a composer to provide really useful music for important ritual or community events. I tend to use these opportunities to indulge in pure craft- the craft of designing a musical/theatrical experience, of soaking myself in tradition, and indulging in the pure joy of old-fashioned counterpoint. So many composers have enjoyed constructing clever games for themselves and their performers and listeners, and I am no exception. Thus this piece contains not just traditional tunes but also age-old composer games such as counterpoint and quodlibet. More on that in a moment.

The piece opens with fragments of O Come O Come Emmanuel in my signature key of e minor. Why e minor? I don’t know except that maybe because I discovered the dark open ringing sound of the guitar’s e minor chord when I was young and impressionable, I’ve always thought of it as primal. (I’ve used it in numerous pieces including the opening of my meditation on Kepler’s solar system in the orchestra piece Harmonices Mundi as the sound of the background microwave radiation…) The fragments of Emmanuel coalesce and we hear the whole tune before it gives way to another minor tune greatly loved by Bach: Savior of the Nations Come, introduced by the organ and answered by the brass section- another call for divine intervention in a period of dark waiting.

Like a hopeful sign, Comfort Comfort Now My People enters in the woodwinds and harp, with its dance-like rhythms alternating 6/8 and 3/4 time influenced by the 16th century French tradition of musique mesuree a l’antique (measured music in ancient style). But Advent is not yet over and a brass fanfare returns us to darkness and a final statement of O Come Emmanuel.

Then- like a miracle, the harp plays a surprising upward C Major arpeggio and we are into the Christmas season with a quiet, intimate rendition of Lo How a Rose is Growing performed by a solo string quartet under the haze of a high harmonic. Another miracle chord on the harp and the tune is joined by the full string section, but with another chorale tune, heard as though from another dimension on the solo trumpet: the first statement of THE Lutheran Christmas chorale From Heaven Above to Earth I Come. (Which I used as the basis for my entire cantata for these Christmas Concerts 30 years ago: Officium Pastorum: The Office of the Shepherds.(1985)

Another miracle chord from the harp brings a full statement of From Heaven Above, now triumphantly in the full brass, with the upper woodwinds and strings counterpointing it in good “quodlibet” style (several well-known tunes performed simultaneously as counterpoint) with Rejoice Rejoice Believers. Finally the low brass and organ add a third simultaneous tune with the augmented (and now E major!) version of O Come Emmanuel. The meditation ends in a blaze of glory with bells ringing. 

The Blooming Season: finally tracks with vocals!

Last spring I posted some MIDI tracks of songs from the musical theater production I wrote music for at The Evergreen State College in Olympis, Washington- “The Blooming Season,” a Chinese-inspired new work with book and lyrics by the prodigiously talented Nick McChord. Refer to that previous post for details on the plot and how the production came to be.

Here I offer four tracks for your listening consideration, all based on Kunqu opera tunes from “The Peony Pavilion” – the most famous Chinese opera ever and the plot source for part of our new show. Our show opened with the first track here: “I Believe.” I took the Kunqu opera tune and altered it for modern, American ears and the musical theater style. Nonetheless, our Chinese director Rose Jang, herself an accomplished amateur performer of Chinese opera, immediately recognized the tune in my adaptation of it! This short song opened the whole show and is sung here by Erin Calata.

Next is a suite “I was a Pretty Girl” that evolves from a solo song, sung by a woman who thinks she is dying of unfound love and falling into a dream, to the ensemble number she conjures up in her erotic fantasy. The script called for a ’60’s flower-power number so I channeled “Hair” and the final section of this is the result. Notice that the opening solo song uses the same tune as the one above that opened the show. Thematic transformation!  The singers are Kathryn Claus Burke, Leean Conley-Holcom, Erin Calata and playwright Nick McChord.

Next is the song sung by this same girl upon waking and discovering that the wonderful fantasy was not real. This is another “transformed” Kunqu opera tune from “The Peony Pavilion.” The rising opening motif, outlining a second-inversion minor triad, struck me as very memorable and usable 400 years later far, far from China… The singer is Kathryn Claus Burke.

Finally, another transformation for you- here is the same tune but now done up like a Eurobeat club dance tune. The script suddenly calls us into the present in modern Beijing for a scene about struggling artists, pollution and media censorship, in which the woman character again faces losing love… Listen for the same second-inversion minor triad opening motif.  The singer is Leean Conley-Holcom.

For Those Who Wait: a dialog with Bach

My most excellent PLU music colleague, wind ensemble conductor Ed Powell, asked me last spring to write a slow movement piece for his upcoming tour to Tennessee in January 2015. He also suggested we try to crowd-source the commission fee so as to allow smaller schools with smaller budgets to participate in the fun of commissioning a new piece. By keeping the buy-in fee low and advertising it to 6500 members of a national conductor’s listserve we received 62 requests to join and the piece was on!

Ed suggested using PLU’s Lutheran connection and heritage as a starting point, reminding me of several other very beloved pieces based on chorale tunes- in particular two by Eastman Conservatory composer Warren Benson from the 1970’s. Ed’s particular favorite chorale tune is “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” as used by Bach in his Saint Matthew Passion. In that monumental composition Bach uses this tune as a continually recurring and therefore unifying device, changing the degree of harmonic intensity in the four-part choral settings as needed depending on the changing emotions of the Passion story.

With all this in mind, I began, as I usually do, by thinking about everything I knew about this project. The chorale tune of course, but also the fact that of the 62 schools that had signed on as commissioners, some were very high-end conservatories with ensembles full of both graduate and under-graduate music majors while others were high schools in small towns with limited resources and probably limited pools of players. The technical demands on the players could not be too high but the musical meaning had to be deep enough to attract the energy and passion of players at all levels.  A slow movement of perhaps 10 minutes duration has to be very careful in its unfolding- that’s a long time for an audience to sit and listen with no fast energy to keep them engaged. Band audiences range from the music majors at big universities to mom and dad in the gym at the high school spring concert. All needed to be served in a way that was meaningful.

What sort of creative space was enclosed by these various precompositional givens? That is usually one of the most creative and interesting parts of the compositional process for me- defining the piece by the borders created by that which is known and then finding within that space the conceptual heart of the piece. Working this way allows me to dialog and bounce off of ideas outside myself for a much richer set of possibilities to consider. It also keeps me mindful of the extent to which composing is an act of service to one’s community, particularly to those who requested the piece.

I thought about the title of that chorale- at least the title often associated with it now in the US- “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” This caused me to return to a theme that had haunted me for a number of years as former PLU students of mine had joined the military and had done multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan while their spouses waited anxiously at home. For those at home, their “sacred heads” are constantly in danger and far, far away. For them, there is nothing to do but hope and pray and wait. This then became the conceptual heart I was searching for and I titled the piece “For Those Who Wait.” It is a dialog with two of Bach’s harmonic choral settings of the tune, one more calm and the other intensely chromatic.

The piece is structured in four sections that all run together: chorale fragments, chorale variations, chorale statements, and again chorale fragments. Compositionally, it takes the tune and its harmonizations and puts them through a series of intervallic processes. The intervals are increasingly “crushed” down so that the original rising fourth of the tune becomes a third and even a second with the following intervals in the tune similarly squashed. This creates different affects ranging from background concern, to gritted teeth, to an all-out nightmare version of the chromatic harmonization in which I added a rising contrapuntal line in the upper winds and had the percussion bell instruments play increasingly hysterical aleatoric lines. Between all the emotion, the sax quartet plays like the angelic organ we desire to calm us down and sing to us of beauty and peace and comfort. In the end of the piece, the inchoate fragments of the opening return, but do not quite vanquish the anxieties and we are left with the sound of a gong ringing into silence as our waiting goes on…

This recording is from the PLU Wind Ensemble’s recent January, 2015 tour to Tennessee and is the first recording ever made of this piece. I hope more recordings are shared with me from the 62 scheduled premieres coming up this year! This has been an immensely satisfying project for me, working with Ed Powell and his great students, working with band directors all over the country, and being able to celebrate and honor my PLU students and all those who wait for those in harm’s way.

Wolfgang at the Gates: a dialog with Mozart

In November 2014 the Northwest Sinfonietta premiered a piece I wrote for them called “Wolfgang at the Gates.” I knew that the performance would include Mozart’s “Paris” symphony- the one he wrote while shopping for a job in that city in 1778. He was there with his mother, who spoke no French and was desperately lonely and isolated and increasingly infirm. At age 22 Mozart was no longer the child prodigy and was finding it hard to recapture the interest of the Paris audience which had so fawned on him when he was 6! The public was still smitten with the music of Gluck, even thought that master had returned to Vienna to write for the Austrian court. His primary patron in Paris had obtained for him a commission for a symphony to be premiered at a concert series in June and Mozart worked hard to try to meet the exact taste of the audience.

The premiere was a success, with Mozart almost teasing his audience with a particular device which seemed to be in fashion that season- the “three strikes of the bow”- a declarative rhythm that opens a piece decisively. Mozart opens both the first and third (final) movement with this device, though in the third movement he delays its entrance for a few bars and then delivers it, probably with tongue firmly in cheek. His overly anal-retentive patron suggested to Mozart after the premiere that perhaps the audience hadn’t liked the middle movement quite as much as the other two and that perhaps he should write another middle movement for the second scheduled performance. (Imagine telling Mozart to try again!) But ever the entrepreneur, he dutifully did write an alternative middle movement which he claimed in a letter to his father to like even better than the original one.

Alas, in the midst of this writing and re-writing, Mozart’s ailing mother finally succumbed and died in early August, to the absolute despair of her son. Mozart was not only miserable at the death of his beloved mother but terrified of the response from his father. The mother had been sent to watch over the son, but clearly the son was also supposed to take care of his mother! We can see Mozart’s nervousness about telling his father the news in the fact that he sent a letter to his father after the death in which he mentioned nothing about it. Only a few days later did he screw up his courage to share the dreadful news.

My piece “Wolfgang at the Gates” is a tour inside the mind of Mozart as he composes this symphony. All the themes of the resulting symphony are present, but in fragments, as though yet unformed. Also present are fragments of music by Gluck, whose music was ever-present and popular in the Paris salons and concert halls Mozart desired to penetrate. As he works, and his mother declines towards death, Mozart battles in his mind between the cheerful tunes his symphony must present and the thoughts of doom pressing on him both by career failure and his mother’s health. The second act of Gluck’s famous opera “Orfeo ed Euridice” is called “At the Gates of Hell” and depicts Orpheus reaching the underworld seeking to return his beloved Euridice to the land of the living. I imagine Mozart identifying with this scene, and thus his mind keeps returning to Gluck’s “Dance of the Infernal Spirits” and, of course, the famous aria “che faro senza Euridice”- what will I do without my Euridice?

In my piece, we begin with the “three strokes of the bow,” as does Mozart’s symphony, but then hear the timpani thunder out a darkness, as though Mozart is unable to continue in this cheerful vein. A three-note “doom” motif sounds in the strings, and then fragments of Mozart’s musical material try again and again to get the symphony started. Gluck and Mozart swirl and intersperse through two climaxes and intervening slower, softer sections dominated by “che faro…” All the tunes of Mozart’s two outer movements are touched upon before the theme of the slow lyrical second movement is finally discovered and allows Mozart to see his way to a conclusion. We reach the ritual cadential material, as required by the taste of the day, but the timpani has the last word- rolling ominously, or sadly, before concluding with that same “three strokes of the bow” with which this whole process had begun.

In the premiere concert, the Northwest Sinfonietta opened with two sets of dances from Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”, followed by Samuel Jones’ fabulous and romantic “Cello Concerto” with soloist Julian Schwartz. After intermission “Wolfgang at the Gates” was followed immediately by Mozart’s “Paris Symphony.” The effect was as I had hoped. After hearing my piece, one had the eerie sensation of knowing quite a lot about the symphony as it unfolded- almost as if we had been there looking over Mozart’s shoulder and sharing sad beers with him as he worriedly composed. Of course, “Wolfgang at the Gates” stands on its own as a 13 minute piece for chamber orchestra, but I really hope other conductors will consider pairing it with its famous companion piece for a truly striking concert experience.

Poetry Above the Roar: Ten New Songs on Poems by William Kupinse

Well, It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I last posted! But I have been busy composing!

I’ll write about a Lutheran Processional with superimposed folk music, and the Prelude to my opera Cai Yan in other posts.

Here I’ll discuss my new cycle of songs on poems by University of Puget Sound poet William Kupinse which occupied me during the late summer and fall, 2013. I heard Bill read some of his poems at a gathering of all of Tacoma’s past and current Poets Laureate last spring. I was struck by the fascinating combination of elegance and humor and asked him if he had ever had any of his poems set to music. (Some poets do not like this process at all, feeling- very understandably- that a poem is already a complete work of art and likely to suffer damage at the hands of a composer who 1) is not  poet and probably doesn’t have the knowledge to understand what he is wrecking and 2) will impose his own powerful medium upon the poem so as to force one particular interpretation upon it that may not be to the poet’s liking.) Fortunately Bill seemed intrigued by the idea and sent me a pdf copy of his 2009 collection “Fallow” published by Exquisite Dissarray with partial funding by the Tacoma Arts Commission during the year that Bill was the Poet Laureate. I was finishing other things like the opera prelude and the Lutheran Processional and so didn’t act upon these immediately.

When I looked at them closely in mid summer, I was struck by how much many of them brought powerfully to mind our own, Puget Sound experience- plants, animals, water, trees, gloomy winters which give way to springs full of promise… I began with a poem that is still one of my favorites: Point Defiance, which meditates in various ways upon the huge, wild park in the city of Tacoma- its hidden pathways through old growth forest, its beaches with giant bleached tree trunks angling down toward the water…

I love the process of setting someone else’s poetry to music. words have their own music- vowels and consonants, word and phrase rhythms, alliteration, internal rhymes, puns, allusions, associations… Free verse in particular has very unpredictable rhythms to it which lead me in directions I would not have thought to go on my own- unusual phrase lengths, text painting with melody or harmony or orchestration. A full poem of any length, long or short, has its own “journey” it begins with an idea and develops it to some sort of conclusion, along the way suggesting various segments distinguished by changes of mood, metaphor or character. These I try to identify in ways that will be useful to me in creating an engaging musical experience for the audience. As I thus break the poem up into what will be discerned as musical sections, I confront the challenge of transforming the poetic structure and experience into a musical one. Very often a piece of pure music finds its conclusion in somehow re-visiting opening ideas, thus showing us how the same material has found new meaning during the journey. But a poem often (usually?) does not do this; instead it begins at point A and ends at point B. The poetic logic is thus often linear, rather than circular as in music. Thus the composer may find new ways to produce a sense of closure that does not involve opening ideas at all; or may find ways of involving opening ideas in substantially new garb at the end to represent the difference between the opening and closing, or may in fact find that using the opening music with the closing words of the poem provides a very interesting and enlightening experience that neither the poem or the music alone would have produced. Certainly the poetic logic of the words often unfolds in ways very differently from the logic of pure music, and thus however the piece ends up, the journey of an art song is often quite different from that a composer might come up with were s/he not responding to someone else’s words. I just love this game!

Point Defiance is a longer poem, and revealed what seemed to be many subsections in its journey. From intimate descriptions of pathways and snow cradled in tree stumps to Greek mythological references leading to allusions to ASARCO’s arsenic poisoning of the Tacoma area, the poem moved rapidly from the intimate image to the esoteric reference, from the poignant to the political, from the close-up to the broad landscape. Whales and octopi, the Narrows Bridges and Vashon Island, the poem ranged incredibly, and yet kept its logic and its artistic journey clear and compelling throughout. I chose it to begin. Nothing like starting out with a challenge!

The other challenge I set myself was to see if I could use the sounds modern computer programs are now capable of to make a final product. Usually, for me, Finale and Sibelius software programs are for my own composing process, not for final listening by my audience. But the sounds have gotten so good that I thought it would be fun to see if they could produce such a final listening experience. Thus, besides the mezzo soprano voice that sings the poems, the sounds are all computer generated, using Finale and Garritan Personal Orchestra. The final product was conceived of as mostly a CD or downloadable songs, though we also decided to perform it in concert on Tuesday, February 11, 2014 at PLU.

The musical style of the pieces comes from two places. The first is my career-long fascination with exploring the space between popular and classical music. I have many pieces which play in this sandbox- from The Godmaking of the Skies and the Earth, a gospel-doowop-rock a cappella choral setting of the creating story in Genesis, to a jazzy bassoon sonata. The second place was Bill Kupinse’s poems in the collection- they have that sly humor I first heard at the reading last spring which seemed to demand a musical analog. Though Point Defiance did not require this, some of the others made me laugh out loud as I studied them, including “Ferment” with its topic of rotting fruit and image of teetotalling raccoons… Others cast curses at men who love leafblowers or described the end of human experience on earth as though it were not an entirely bad thing for the planet overall. The set of ten songs thus presents a wide variety of musical styles, from art song to torchy blues, from folk song to rock-inspired cacaphony. What unifies them is the overall palette of colors in the orchestration, the mezzo soprano voice, and of course the voice of the poet, which is always clear.

I began each song by analyzing the poem for its overall character, made a decision about style, and then began to invent an ensemble using the huge number of choices available to me on my computer software. This was like having a vast orchestra at my immediate and constant disposal- from orchestral violins to jazz basses, from steel drums to sound effects to sitars. In fact, one of the difficulties was to discipline myself, as all good composers must do, to stay within some sort of logical, unifying set of sounds so that the overall song cycle sounded like it belonged to one concept. I would guesstimate a set of potentially useful instrumental sounds, add them to the “score” in the Finale program, and then begin exploring their combinations with musical ideas suggested by the poems. I would subtract, add, and combine instrumental sounds until some sort of motivic idea suddenly snapped into focus. It was was fast and immediate, rather like a painter who can see immediately the effect of adding red to the right hand corner of the canvas. I could push “play” and immediately hear the final product! It was like candy to a baby and I fully understand now the seduction of electronic music to a number of composers of my generation! (This is in fact the way almost all contemporary popular music is made- in a studio, adding and subtracting ideas in real sound.)

Of course, what is missing here, is live performers working on my music, adding their interpretive ideas, and finally playing it live in front of an audience. But I was able to bounce my musical ideas off of the poet, Bill Kupinse, as I worked and, thank goodness he approved!- and I also had the fun of working with my very talented mezzo soprano singer, Erin Calata who provided her own interpretive ideas to the performance of them. In the end, it is this habitual desire for a live performance that caused me to want a “recital” performance of them as well as the recorded versions. Thus our decision to perform them live at PLU in February, 2014.

Up at the top are mp3s of the two songs I discussed: Point Defiance and Ferment.  Hope you enjoy them!

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?