Saturday, March 5, 2011

Charms & Chasms Premiere

I'm headed up to William Paterson Monday to hear Peter Jarvis perform my Charms and Chasms for multi-percussion. Peter is one of the best players in the state, a fine conductor and a great supporter of new music. I'm always grateful for the opportunity to have him or his ensemble, the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble, perform anything of mine.

Peter asked me for a non-pitched, multi-percussion piece for one player in 2009, but I couldn't get a handle on what I wanted. I had an idea to use a set of cymbals and gongs, but I couldn't get any farther than that.

I think what finally tipped the bucket for me was lecturing about John Cage in my class "Music and the Natural World," discussing his conviction, borrowed from Indian philosophy, that the purpose of music was "to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences". Cage used both strict processes and randomness to create musical experiences that often have the sense of having been written by no one, but just having emerged, at his command, out of the natural order, the sounds all around us.

I was thinking a lot about that notion when I started composing this piece. I finished it in January of 2010. The final setup does use mostly cymbals and gongs, with one floor tom thrown in. I put the cymbals into a particular order physically around the player and then used a simple integer series (2-1-3-1-3-2-1) to choose which cymbal to strike at any moment, leading off with steady quarter-note strikes for a sense of ritual, a slow, steady motion through space.

The integer series also guides the phrase structure, which is comprised of measures of 7 beats each. So, after a short introduction on the tom, the first phrase is two 7-beat measures, the second is one, the third is three, etc. There are five sections; each complete section is roughly 13 measures (the sum of the integers in the series) and features some new way of interpreting the series to create surface detail. In section 2, for instance, I add grace notes onto select notes in each measure and the number of grace notes for each note follow the series (2 grace notes, 1 grace note, 3 grace notes, etc.)

The final score is more complicated than this short description, but you get the idea. I was using that little number series to create strict parameters within which I could make musical decisions. There's quite a lot of freedom within this structure--more than you would expect. My hope is, in the setting up of this score and this musical experience, in the ritual of choosing sounds, I was following Cage's advice--opening myself and my music up to divine influences, opening up the act of composition to the order-within-chaos and the chaos-within-order that are the voice of the universe.

Peter premieres this piece on a program that includes music of his, along with work by Milton Babbitt, David Saperstein, George Perle, George Walker and David Sampson. The concert is 7:30 p.m. at Shea Center Auditorium, 300 Pompton Road, Wayne.

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