ORCHESTRA - Dust Dances (1994) Program Notes

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." -- Mic Holwin

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