OCEANS OF NOTHING V (2016)
(recording available soon)
PREMIERE: 2016-10-10 (STONY BROOK, NY)
LATEST PERFORMANCE: 2017-04-18 (OBERLIN, OH)
These are the sounds I hear when I close my eyes. These are the sounds of different people playing the same instruments. These are the sounds of air raids, of patrols at night, or of noontime in Minnesota. These are the sounds of the shô. These are the sounds of great and villainous orators speaking into microphones attached to heavy needles writing onto wax cylinders, over one-hundred years ago. These are the sounds of motors invented during World War I to make percussion instruments behave more like the human voice. These are the sounds of my father rummaging through the junkyard for car parts. These are the sounds of waves rolling onto the shore. Sometimes, I can’t tell one from the other.
Oceans of Nothing V belongs to a series of works for chamber ensembles of identical instruments that explore repetition, memory, and sonic transformation.
Having previously employed duos of accordions, clarinets, violins, and tubas, this fifth work for percussion quartet combines sounds of the urban landscape (car parts, sirens, resonant bits of metal, kick drums) with musical structures used by the Japanese shô—a mouth organ whose complex chords blossom from long and sustained single tones.
The rhythmic material of the music comes from my own transcriptions of speech rhythms found in early-twentieth-century wax cylinder recordings. Sometimes sped up, sometimes slowed down, always in strict proportion to the original, these idiosyncratic rhythms find their way into everything from the brake drums of the opening, to the bass drum cacophony at the close.
One of the recordings mined for its speech rhythms contains an address by William Jennings Bryan, the infamous populist politician and prosecutor for the Scopes Monkey Trial. The speech (dubbed “Immortality”) was recorded during Bryan’s 1908 unsuccessful presidential bid against Howard Taft. Even now, a few of the words can be heard through the hisses and pops of the cylinder…
“In Cairo I secured a few grains of wheat that had slumbered for more than three thousand years in an Egyptian tomb. As I looked upon them this thought came into my mind:
If one of those grains had been planted on the banks of the Nile, and if all its lineal descendants had been planted and replanted from that time until now, its progeny would today be sufficiently numerous to feed the teeming millions of the world.
There is in the grain of wheat an invisible something that has power to discard the body that we see, and from earth and air fashion a new body so much like the old one that we cannot tell the one from the other. And if this invisible germ of life in the grain of wheat can thus pass unimpaired through three thousand resurrections, I shall not doubt that my soul has power to clothe itself with a body suited to its new existence when this earthly frame has crumbled into dust.”