Dust Dances (1994)
Derek Bermel (b. 1967)
"Dust Dances" is a ten-minute orchestral work based on the African gyil music prevalent in northwestern Ghana, southern Burkina Faso, and northeastern Ivory Coast. The gyil is a 14- to 18-key instrument resembling a Western marimba. Tuned slabs of carved mahogany wood are bound with animal hide to a sturdy wooden frame. Each key has its own gourd resonator; crushed and flattened spiders' webs are seared with rubber over holes carved in the gourd, creating a buzzing membrane as the keys are struck.
In "Dust Dances," Derek Bermel translates into orchestral idioms a typical session of two gyil players and a drummer, as they string together recreational and funeral songs. More than either African or American music, the piece is a bi-continental hybrid that joins the rhythmic complexity of West African music with the harmonic structure of American concert music.
Keeping true to gyil music, which is always in the same key, the entirety of "Dust Dances" is in D and employs a pentatonic scale, the tuning the gyil approximates. Several of the gyil's notes fall between the pitches of the Western chromatic scale, and two gyils may differ widely in pitches. To produce the "in-between" notes, Bermel at times calls for two clashing pentatonic modes to be played in different octaves.
Polyrhythms, fluidly employed by African musicians, are also implied in "Dust Dances". Its predominant 3/2 meter allows for a flexible beat that suggests other pulses, such as 12/8. Dance beats often surface, revealing roots in African music's preeminent societal practice. Dust Dances is in four main sections. An introduction of the main theme, a funeral song entitled "Saayir Kyena Dakpol" ("My Father's House is Empty"), ends with a trumpet cutting across the beat in a feeling of metered four. Variations then begin on "Dondome Nye Ka Wulle" ("I am the Greatest [Gyil Player]") with bassoons playing a swaggering bass line under the oboes' angular melody. The echo or hocket effect created by the trumpet and piano near the end of the section is an imitation of a difficult gyil technique in which one player mirrors the other's melodic improvisations an eighth note behind. A "recital" follows, during which the names of ancestors and of Bermel's gyil teachers, Baaru and Na-Ile, and of the composer himself are called. Musical gestures in this interlude carry the meaning of spoken words or phrases. The third section features the funeral praise song "Kukur Gandaa Bie, Kuora Gandaa Bie." Here the trombone soloist plays a melody containing quarter tones that are closer to the true pitches of the gyil. In the final section, clarinets jump into the playful "Luba Pog Nung Wa Da Bin Kobo" ("The Lobi Woman Bought Feces for One Penny [at the Market, Thinking It Was Food]"). Songs from the previous sections return and are combined as Dust Dances drives toward its rousing conclusion on a praise to Baaru's full name, "Togo Ngmen Baaru Missele."
Dust Dances premiered on May 9, 1998 at Norwalk Concert Hall in Norwalk, CT, with the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jesse Levine.
Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Shaham
Flute Concerto (2013)
Kevin Puts (b. 1972)
Bette and Joe Hirsch are longtime patrons of the annual Cabrillo Festival who became fans of my music when they heard my Symphony no. 2 performed at the festival in 2002. Incidentally, this was the first time Marin Alsop, the festival’s Music Director, had programmed a piece of mine and the beginning of a musical friendship I continue to cherish.
A few years ago, Bette secretly approached the festival about commissioning an orchestra piece from me for Joe’s 75th birthday. Not long after, Joe also secretly approached the festival about a chamber piece for the couple’s 35th wedding anniversary. My thought was that a single piece might suffice (!), and why not a flute concerto, as I had never written one, and Bette played the flute in her youth?
What opens the concerto is a melody I have had swimming around in my head for more than half a lifetime now, something I began singing to myself in college and for which I had never found appropriate context. I was reminded of it while listening to a recording of Adam Walker, the brilliant Principal Flutist of the London Symphony Orchestra and the soloist whom Maestra Alsop had invited to premier the concerto. Built on a simple three-note motive, the theme is lyrical and easy to remember but somewhat rhythmically irregular at the same time.
The second movement was written during a period in which I was rather obsessed with the second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 467, often referred to as the “Elvira Madigan concerto” due to its use in the eponymously titled film of the 70’s. What Mozart could evoke with a major chord repeated in triplets, a simple bass-line played pizzicato, and a melody floating above is mind-boggling and humbling to me. Nonetheless, I decided to enter into this hallowed environment, and, in a sense, to speak from within it in my own voice.
Rhythm drives the third movement, its main ideas drawn from the main theme of the first movement and culminating in a highly energetic dialogue between the soloist and a small, contrapuntal band of winds, brass and percussion.
Symphony No. 3 (2011)
Christopher Rouse (b. 1949)
Over the years I’ve often toyed with the concept of “rewriting” a work composed by someone else. By this I do not mean “correcting” or “improving” it; rather, my idea has been to take some central aspect of an already composed work and consider it anew.
My third symphony is an attempt to do just this. The unusual form of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 2 furnished the old bottle into which I have tried to pour new wine. Among Prokofiev’s symphonies this one is, I believe, of especially high caliber, though it is rarely programmed. He called it his “symphony of iron and steel,” and it is unquestionably one of his more aggressive and uncompromising scores. Cast in two movements—an opening toccata-like allegro followed by a set of variations—Prokofiev’s own architecture was in turn influenced by that of Beethoven in his final piano sonata. I thus took this structure as my own and tried to maintain Prokofiev’s own proportions between the two movements.
There is little in the way of actual quotation from Prokofiev’s symphony. However, Prokofiev’s opening repeated-note trumpet blasts also begin my symphony, though Prokofiev’s D has here been replaced by an F. There is also a direct quote at the end of my first movement: the solo percussion passage at the end of Prokofiev’s first movement has been transferred here by way of homage. As in the Russian master’s score, the music of this movement is often savage and aggressive.
The second movement of Beethoven’s sonata consists of a theme with four variations and the equivalent movement in Prokofiev’s symphony of a theme with six variations. I decided to split the difference and commit to a theme-with-five-variations form. The variations are of notably disparate character, and the musical language ranges from the dissonant and barbaric to the overtly tonal. After the statement of the theme, the bright and glittering first variation gives way to a highly romantic variation scored for strings and harps only. The third variation is moderate in tempo and mood, but the short fourth is a mostly quiet whirlwind in an extremely fast tempo. The final variation, which follows without pause, possesses a bacchanalian abandon. A final reprise of the theme, again a reference to Prokofiev’s form, brings the symphony to a close.
The work was completed in Baltimore, Maryland on February 3, 2011. Lasting about twenty-five minutes, it is dedicated to my high school music teacher, John Merrill; without his kindness and encouragement I might never have found the fortitude to persevere in my dream of being a composer.
Symphony No. 3 was commissioned by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. It was premiered on May 5, 2011 at Powell Symphony Hall, St. Louis MO, by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Robertson.