Notes for CLAWHAMMER
Drawing on melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic materials from an old dance tune performed on a field recording by Fred Cocherham (“Pretty Little Miss,” Lowgap, North Carolina), Clawhammer takes the listener on an exciting and energetic journey from beginning to end. Constructed in four freely-interchanged parts, the folk tune exhibits a model of old-time banjo playing.
From its opening, the music of Clawhammer assumes a strong dance character. Rhythms focus on a steady beat, and the plucked pitches create a sound suggesting the timbre of the banjo. Very deliberately and slowly, the composer increases the complexity and momentum of the music, driving to the apex of the composition, where a frenzy of motion is both heard and seen in the orchestra, suggesting a steamy, Saturday night dance floor.
The basic technique of the composition simulates a sculptor working with “found objects,” such as a bicycle handle bar and seat. The sculptor focuses not just on the objects themselves, but on what happens when the objects are combined and produce a transformational result.
The term “clawhammer” refers to a general technique used in playing old-time, five-string banjo, which evolved into the bluegrass style of banjo playing. The thumb picks downward while the first two fingers tear at the strings in an upward motion, similar to the nail claw of a carpenter’s hammer. (Left-hand technique includes devices called “pulls” and “hammers.”) Plain suggests the clawhammer style with plucked strings (pizzicato), rapid slides, and, especially, in sections where chords jump between pitch registers. Passagework of imitated folk fiddle will also delight the listener’s ear.
Clawhammer is meant to be more enjoyed than analyzed. The listener is encouraged to just sit back and enjoy the flow of the music.
Program Notes for Tarantella
The Harvard Dictionary of Music describes the Tarantella as “a Neapolitan dance in rapid 6/8 meter, probably named for Taranto in southern Italy, or, according to popular legend, for the tarantula spider whose poisonous bite the dance was believed to cure.”
My Tarantella was first completed in September 2011 and was the final portion of the second movement of a larger orchestral work entitled A Memory Suite. That movement, Blues and Tarantella for Ol’ Jonah, commemorated a black snake, named Ol’ Jonah, who would come down a tree in my grandfather Salmon’s front yard and hiss at the family enjoying the relaxation of a warm, summer, Sunday afternoon in the early 1950’s. In October of 2013 the tarantella was extracted from the movement and extended to become an independent work, perfect for a fanfare. It will, hopefully, become a pleasing and refreshing insert in an orchestra program that will warm the hearts of a receptive concert audience.
Tarantella is dedicated to the memory of Ruth T. Watanabe, head of the Sibley Library of the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music for thirty-seven years. She was a special friend of the composer’s deceased wife, Marilyn.
Program Notes for A Memory Suite
Ol’ Joe’s Patch (Move. I)
As the story was passed down, my great-grandfather Salmon’s slave died before buying his freedom and his money was hidden somewhere on the farm, perhaps in his garden (his patch). The story ignited a thunderstorm of treasure hunting fever among all of the young relatives. No treasure was ever found, but that did not slow anyone down. After the introduction we are introduced to Ol’ Joe as he is hoeing his patch and humming fragments of a popular religious hymn, Come Thou Font of Every Blessing (1757). Out of this quotation, the music develops. The sound of the hoe is heard as a percussionist beats on a bean bag with a long stick, rather like a hoe.
Blues and Tarantella for Ol’ Jonah (Move. II)
The black snake, Ol’ Jonah, lived in a hollow of a particular tree in my grandfather Salmon’s front yard and was part of at least one summer when the composer was about ten years old. This movement begins with a musical representation of what the snake hears when the large family would arrive on a Sunday afternoon, creating a crescendoing din of noise. (Snakes hear lower frequencies through their jaw bone which is then connected to their ear bone.) After tolerating a certain threshold of noise, the angry snake would come down his tree and put on a real show of hissing. My grandfather would have the family to move to the back yard. The snake finally came to its end at the hand of my grandfather, thus the blues.
Midnight on the Ol’ Burial Mound (Move. III)
This movement is about the mystique of hunting arrowheads and its power over the imagination, evoking the eeriness of an Indian burial mound in the middle of the summer night and imagining the presence of real or imaginary spirits, good and bad. The music is concerned with the calling of the spirits and the spirits awaken.
Dancing With Ol’ Scratch (Move. IV)
As is always the case with the Ol’ Scratch, the dance is always simple and casual in the beginning. (Consider the biblical story of Adam and Eve.) Then, slowly, things change for the worse and become complicated, even nightmarish. Almost everyone dances just a little with the Ol’ Scratch, or are scared they might be tempted to do a bit of dancing.
As a statement of disclaimer, the composer does not condone slavery in any shape or form, nor does he recommend performing any kind of shenanigans with the devil.
I have been using folk materials in my compositions since 1969 and my objective has always been to artfully fuse these elements into a modern sound fabric.
My Performance Conductors:
Gianluigi Gelmetti, Massimo Pradella, Oleg Kovalenko, Gerhard Samuel, Lukas Foss, Lawrence Foster, Michael Morgan, Kenneth Jean, Paul Polivnick, Gunther Schuller, Steven Smith, Sydney Hodkinson, Stewart Robertson, Andrew Davis, Edwin London, John McL. Williams
Cleveland Chamber Symphony, Louisville Orchestra, Vermont Symphony Orchestra, Richmond (VA) Symphony, Atlantic Classical Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Long Beach Symphony, Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Alabama Symphony Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Brooklyn Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Radiotelevisione Italiana Orchestra of Rome, Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston, Philharmonic Orchestra of Monte Carlo.