I started working on the music for Thou Shalt!/Thou Shalt Not!in early 1982, at the end of my graduate studies at Yale University. I wrote much of the material at the piano, pounding out a conflict between two stubborn musical forces: a modal melody, anchored by a low E that remains relentlessly in place, and the counter response of four notes (F, A, A, F), which refuse to soften or give in. I continued to work on Thou Shalt!/Thou Shalt Not!in New York City, collecting odd assortments of instruments in my loft on Desbrosses Street, trying out various orchestrations.
Eventually I found what I wanted –– an amplified sound that combined violin and viola with electric guitar as the “string” section, a growling bass clarinet (played by Evan Ziporyn) on that low E, and a vintage electric organ (which I played) that supported and meshed these four instruments together. At that time, there were very few pieces, if any, that used the electric guitar as a chamber music instrument and, subsequently, few guitarists who knew how to read music, play with an ensemble and make the guitar sound truly “electric.” Both the violin and viola were re-tuned, with the violin tuning its lowest string down to E and its highest string up to F, and the viola tuning its C down to B. Toward the end of the piece the guitarist must re-tune as well.
The ensemble voices a stark melody that twists into long winding tunes. Opposing the ensemble is a tour-de-force performance for a percussionist, who has to play both tuned drums and marimba simultaneously. The struggle between the ensemble and percussionist continues throughout the piece without resolution –– a jagged, brutal and stark equilibrium of intense battle –– with the percussion playing quarter-note triplets in groups of four or five that consistently interrupt the ensemble’s attempted groove.
Perhaps the conflict in this piece is between classical music and rock music, two worlds that seemingly could not coexist in 1983, which I am trying to force into a single statement. Or perhaps it is the struggle between the sacred and the secular, or anything for which there really is no resolution.
Thou Shalt!/Thou Shalt Not!was first performed in December 1983 at the East Village art gallery, International With Monument. That occasion marked the first public performance of The Michael Gordon Philharmonic. In addition to Evan and myself, the original members of the group included Ted Kuhn (violin), John Lad (viola), Jon Fields (guitar) and, from the second performance on, Michael Pugliese (percussion).
The Low Quartet is an advocation for the rich, low, reedy register of the bass instruments –– the register that usually carries the flow line that holds up the busier stuff on top. I thought it was time to give them some action –– a clumsy, fast-moving, hard-driving dance, like fat cows grooving. I wrote The Low Quartet for the low instruments of the world.
I often use syncopation as a way to not only make rhythm intense and jagged, but also to find out how far away musicians can get from each other rhythmically while still staying connected to the beat. When I began writing Four Kings Fight Five in 1988, I was thinking about how most music of the world is clearly connected to a pulse. But there also exists music that is extremely complex rhythmically and not pulse based at all. These were two approaches that I wanted to meld.
What I did in Four Kings Fight Five is to have a common pulse among the nine musicians, so that the music is always pulse based, but, at the same time, to make the rhythmic connections very distant. I did this by forming a chain of simple rhythmic syncopations that spread out in sub-divisions of both 2 and 3, so that over the course of a 9-beat measure the rhythm is subdivided into 6, 8, 9, 12, 13.5, 24, and 27. Although it sounds complicated and builds up a frenetic texture, the instrumentalist playing 27 beats per measure is subdividing against 13.5 beats per measure, which are quarter-note triplets against 9 beats per measure.
I thought of he nine instruments as the scene of a battleground, although it is unclear who is fighting whom. I like the biblical reference of Abraham going to battle against four kings who have triumphed over five kings. The battle of the four kings against five is unimportant in itself –– it is related in Genesis only to let you know how strong the four kings are that Abraham defeats, that is, they are strong enough to have beaten five others.
Perhaps at the same time that these nine insruments are battling it out, they are also working together to create a texture that is more mysterious then all of these numbers I mention here.
Acid rain is a type of pollution that attacks plants. It might seem strange to write music about acid rain, but the idea disturbed me so much that I couldn't help but imagine what plants must feel like being covered with unpleasant chemicals. The music has several layers of harsh rhythmic chords that attack simultaneously.
The piece was written for Spectrum, a British ensemble whose American keyboard player, Yvar Mikhashoff, commissioned the piece in 1986. ––Michael Gordon