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).