In Hyper I attempt to create the musical equivalent of an impossible object, an optical illusion in which an impossible geometry is represented. Impossible objects fall up, open in and out, and twist irrationally in space. One impossible object is the Penrose Stairs – stairs that climb upward but somehow loop in a circle, so that no matter how far one climbs they always return to the same place. Similarly, music can travel through keys and end up where it began. These types of illusions, which are common in the art of M. C. Escher, are taken to absurdist ends in literary works like Alice in Wonderland: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” In Hyper I create quixotic geometries without concern for the laws of physics. It has been a thrill to write for the wonderful musicians of DC8 for their inaugural concert.
What is it we talk about when we talk about music? Melody, Harmony, Emotion. These are things that add warmth to a piece of music. I wondered what it would be like to take the warmth away — to approach the music from a different view — like walking out into the tundra. I imagined making a piece of music cold.
Who By Water is inspired by a prayer from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, the service marking the Jewish New Year. The prayer opens as follows: On Rosh Hashanah their destiny is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall pass away and how many shall be brought into existence; who shall live and who shall die; who shall come to a timely end, and who to an untimely end; who shall perish by fire and who by water. Bill Morrison's accompanying film features distressed black-and-white images of people on the great old ships that crossed the sea before airplanes became the popular mode of travel.
I first experimented with microtones in XVI (1993), a piece for 16 voices, and in Vera, Chuck & Dave I returned to thinking about the notes between the notes. Charles Ives was inspired by two marching bands playing different tunes in different keys simultaneously, and tried to recreate this effect in his music.
In Vera, Chuck & Dave, I imagine that those two bands are actually playing the same tune in the same key, but the bands are out of tune and out of step with each other. In order to get this effect, a subset of the ensemble –– clarinet, trumpet, trombone, violin and electric guitar –– tunes a quarter tone higher. I later expand on this 'acoustic chorusing' of pitch in Sunshine of Your Love and Decasia.
In Love Bead, the ensemble of 13 musicians is divided into two forces that continuously pull and tear at each other and then, like lovers, meet up furiously. The piece is built on a pattern of 25 beats. During the first 20 beats, a low, rumbling cluster of instruments, comprised of electric guitar, trombone, contra-bassoon and bass clarinet, play harsh, industrial rhythms. Simultaneously, a second cluster of keyboard and strings plays blunt, attacking strokes.
The clashing forces come together during the last five beats, closing off the pattern, which then begins again. Love Bead is constructed like a set of beads strung together. As the piece progresses, each “bead” changes slightly, like the rough and jagged wooden “Love Beads” that I used to wear growing up. Love Bead was written for the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern.
Trance began after a dream I had in July 1994 while I was in residence at the Djerassi Foundation just south of San Francisco. In the dream I brought my music to an older composer for his comments. The composer was a combination of Gyorgy Ligeti, Louis Andriessen and my own teacher Martin Bresnick. The older composer looked through my scores, one by one, and I could hear in my head the music that he heard in his head as he looked at my compositions. It all sounded like Mozart. After each score the composer shook his head in a discouraging way. Finally he turned to me and said, “You need to work with large forces.” I woke up startled.
That day I received a message from Andrew Cornall, Executive Producer at Argo/Decca Records, who asked me to write a CD-length piece for the London-based ensemble Icebreaker, to be recorded on the Argo label. I had already written Yo Shakespeare for Icebreaker, and I was excited to write another piece for this great group. I started work on Trance. Thinking about my dream, I decided to add eight brass players to the core group of 14 musicians. In addition, two sections of the piece, “Trance Drone” and “Trance 5”, include electronically made audio playback.
The rehearsal process with Icebreaker allowed experimentation with rhythmic figures that were beyond the scope of rhythm as known in Western music. These rhythms were complicated yet could be understood as a groove or feel. The openness and flexibility of Icebreaker allowed me to imagine music with a strong rhythmic pulse, written down, with no one playing on the beat. I imagined several interlocking units going on simultaneously –– like the different thoughts in one's head that go on at once, or, in this case, like being able to hear different kinds of music in one's head at the same time.
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.
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