Sunday, February 6, 2011

Notes on The Body Politik

I’ll be visiting the University of Louisiana at Monroe as a guest composer during the week of their annual Guitar Festival. My friend Dan Sumner who, in addition to being an excellent guitarist and composer, is the Assistant Professor of Music Education at ULM, commissioned me to composed a work for his student guitar ensemble. The resulting piece The Body Politik, for five electric guitars and one electric bass, will be performed at ULM the evening of February 18th. A second composition, Shifting Landscape (for John Cage and Leo Brouwer), may be work shopped by the same guitar ensemble. More details to come.

I am comfortable describing The Body Politik as a "post-minimalist" work. But this begs the question, what is or was minimalism?


Composer John Zorn in the liner notes to his CD The Last Supper describes himself as a “child of minimalism.” Although I’m a generation behind Zorn, I can relate to that self-description since works of minimalist composers had a powerful effect on me as a teenager. Philip Glass’ Glassworks, Meredith Monk’s Turtle Dreams, Steve Reich’s Sextet, Six Marimbas and Laurie Anderson’s Big Science (featuring Anderson's seminal 20th century art song O Superman) were records I sought out and studied, first on my own and then later as a composition major at Capital University. My mentor at Capital, composer Dr. Rocky Reuter, not only loved serial or "twelve-tone" music, but also iconic minimalist works like Terry Riley's In C. In retrospect, I realize now how unusual it was to encounter a professor as open minded as Dr. Reuter.

Many minimalist compositions from the 70’s and 80’s use a limited – sometimes severely limited – set of musical resources (ex: five diatonic notes, intervals of just fifths, one single rhythmic cell, etc). A linear process is often clearly audible, as in Steve Reich's Piano Phase, where two pianists play a melodic pattern in unison gradually moving out of sync with each other by one 16th note, 8th note, dotted eighth note, quarter note, etc creating a series unexpected "modulations, transitions, and climaxes." The material may be limited, but minimalist composers found ways to expand the material into works that could sometimes last several hours.

Here is the MIDI version of and the full score for The Body Politik.

And here are the parts for The Body Politik:

Guitar 1
Guitar 2
Guitar 3
Guitar 4
Guitar 5

Rhythm is the subject of The Body Politik, specifically the superimposition of two time signatures, 3/4 and 6/8. Bassist and composer William Parker wrote: "Three quarter time as six eight time has always conjured up joy for me. There must be a mystical formation inside the number 3 and its multiples." I wanted to explore 3/4 and 6/8 in an ensemble setting where the "feel" of these two time signatures could be explored as well, once each musician had their respective rhythms and notes under their fingers.

(Photo: Philip Glass Ensemble)
Facades by Philip Glass for 2 soprano saxes, violins, viola, cello, and double bass.

Like many of Philip Glass' early works, Facades, which appears on his 1981 album Glassworks, is about rhythm. Listening to this piece, you will hear some compositional precedents for The Body Politik, although many differences are audible as well. Facades moves through its various rhythmic statements at a seductive and languid pace, its instrumentation inspiring its phrases and emotional curves. In contrast, The Body Politik unfolds in a fashion similar to that of a DJ dropping one rhythm atop another and another (throughout the entire piece, the six players never double a part) only to suddenly "mute" several rhythms except maybe one or two to create musical drama. A friend described this to me as the "DJ" approach to composition, and it's not without precedent in "classical" music. The second movement of Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra comes to mind.

Another influence on The Body Politik is the 1982 album I Advance Masked, a collaboration between guitarists Robert Fripp and Andy Summers. The music might be called instrumental rock album, but the music owes more to minimalism, as well as Indonesian gamelan, traditional Indian sitar music, and West African drumming than rock and roll. Still, it is a GUITAR album, and a unique one among instrumental albums of music for that particular instrument.

from I Advance Masked

Some additional notes

Tempo is a crucial component to any composition. Listening to MIDI playback of a piece I've written isn't all that helpful for me except for getting a ballpark idea of how fast or how slow the music could be in a live performance. Tempo is something I have to work it out with the live musicians. With that in mind, I look forward to being in the same room with Dan Sumner's guitar ensemble.

I want my music to breathe and "feel" good. I love and include phrasing and dynamics in my scores, but nothing is set in stone. During rehearsals, I listen to the musicians and am willing to make changes as a piece comes into it's own. That said, when it comes to scored music, musicians appreciate as much information as the composer can give them so that they can begin the process of realizing your piece without an undue number of unnecessary questions. They appreciate your a vision, and want to help you realize it.

To return to this term "post minimalist," have you heard minimalist techniques being used in new, creative ways in any particular new pieces for the concert hall? How about in contemporary pop music? Does the band Radiohead for instance use some minimalist techniques in their compositions?

How about in club music? Or in music for films or computer games?

Update: On February 17th at 11am during the recital hour, we'll be work shopping another piece of mine, Shifting Landscape (for John Cage and Leo Brouwer). I wrote it with a guitar ensemble in mind, but all instruments are welcome to participate, including piano, saxophone, and/or marimba to suggest just a few. More details to come.

1 comment:

Paul Muller said...

Capital University? Unusual to come across another Capital alum. I was a science major but enjoyed the choir and music conservatory performances. Left Coumbus for California in 1972 and had not been back until 2006 - was amazed at how compact the place really is! But it looked good and I received an excellent education there..