SMALL CHAMBER ENSEMBLE - Tied Shifts (2004) Program Notes

In August of 2001 I traveled to Plovdiv, Bulgaria to spend a month working with the great Bulgarian folk clarinetist Nikola Iliev. Fascinated by the melodies in odd meters executed at lightning speeds, I desired to gain firsthand knowledge of the Thracian folk style by learning to play the songs from a master musician. In transcribing melodies with compound meters – 5/8, 7/8, 9/8 (sometimes), 11/8, 13/8, 15/8, and combinations thereof – I was particularly struck by the practice of tying melodic notes over a barline, resulting in an obscuring of the meter. This process made it virtually impossible to guess the meter of a song simply by listening, as downbeats could conceivably be inaudible. Thus, though implied and felt, the odd metrics of a song could remain unstressed; the knowledge of the ‘base’ meter would be for players and familiar listeners alone. To make matters even more confusing to an uninitiated ear, tied notes were often decorated with mordents – I use the term generally designated for inflection similar to the baroque ornamentation – leaving the impression that the meter was in a state of constant flux, shifting with each passing measure. These impressions are those of a Western musician, and they became the points of departure for this piece. I attempted to fashion philosophical and physiological implications of the tied shifts into a work that structurally owes more to Westernthan to Thracian music.

Mordents occupy a central place in this piece, on both local and larger formal levels. The inflections generate their own material, and melodies are spawned from the contour of the rising mordent itself.
The shape of all the melodic material stems from an obsessively repetitive cell, which rises to a mordent-inflected appoggiatura, then inches up farther, always clinging to its origin. I imagined this tension – manifest throughout the work – as a physical being determined to stretch itself, to explore the outer edges of its horizon, but continually finding itself snapped back, as if tethered by an invisible rubber band its place of origin.

Within the octatonic harmonic language of the first movement, I emphasize certain chords, notably a particular inversion of the ‘#9’ which forms the harmonic underpinning for several of my earlier pieces and which – though also derived from the same scale – would not be found in Bulgarian music. The second movement opens in a different harmonic world – a diatonic hymn, derived from the opening melodic material of the first movement. As the hymn is overlaid with a variation of the opening melodic material of the first movement, the two harmonic fields collide and the mordents and inflections often assume the quality of ‘blue’ notes. A second, mostly octatonic, hymn appears, this time in tight harmonic clusters typical of folksong settings rendered by Bulgarian women’s choirs.

During the writing process of Tied Shifts, I had considerable trouble deciding how to notate the agogic accents so that Western players would be able to negotiate the difficult rhythmic displacements most
effectively. For their patience in considering several versions of the notation, I acknowledge the wonderfully competent and thorough musicians in eighth blackbird, for whom this piece was commissioned. Special thanks to Lisa Kaplan who initiated the collaboration, to the Greenwall Foundation and Yaddo for their support, and to Barbara Eliason, Daniel Nass, and Maggie Heskin, who provided invaluable assistance along the way.

Tied Shifts was premiered by eighth blackbird in Columbus, Ohio on January 29, 2005.


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