I met James Poke, founder of the London-based ensemble Icebreaker, in Amsterdam during the intermission of the premiere of Louis Andriessen's De Materie in 1989. I was standing right next to James, and Louis came over and said, “You and you are friends.” We found a lot to talk about, and, some time later, James called me in a bit of a panic: Icebreaker was making a recording and some of the music hadn't been completed. Would I be willing to write a new piece for them –– quickly?
I was living in Amsterdam at the time and started writing immediately, using a primitive musical notation program called HB Engraver. HB Engraver didn't have barlines –– you put them in yourself. It also allowed me to write odd numbers of triplets, one or two triplets by themselves. I started experimenting with these oddly numbered triplets, finding some joyful, exuberant rhythms that sounded great but looked impossible to play. I discovered, however, that I could put barlines into the music and make measures in which the three triplet notes are split into groups of one and two, and it would all still add up.
This is the origin of the split triplet, which I use throughout Yo Shakespeare, as well as in Trance, Love Bead and other pieces. In Yo Shakespeare, I was able to achieve something that I first attempted to create when I wrote Thou Shalt/Thou Shalt Not!, which is to have a jagged, interrupted rhythmic plot that at the same time feels pulse based and moves forward energetically. I wanted to write visceral music, and I thought of Yo Shakespeare as three salsa bands playing simultaneously, at different but related speeds. I divided the 13 musicians into three groups, one playing the 16th-note pulse, one playing eighth notes and split triplets and, finally, one playing dotted eighths and quarter notes.
One of the oddities of working with Icebreaker is that they sent over a list of rules, a manifesto of sorts, that they asked me to follow, including a rule that the band has final approval of the title of the piece. For fun I submitted three titles and asked them to choose. Yo Shakespeare was a title I came up with because a friend of mine had begun calling me Shakespeare as a way to connect me in his mind to “culture.” I also thought the title was a nice nod from an American composer to a group of UK musicians.