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 Ah! Ha! San Antone
This suite commemorates three steel guitarists of the Western Swing era (30’s and 40’s). Western Swing was a combination of country and swing jazz, mainly a dance music with an up-beat tempo. With the advent of amplification, the addition of two strings (totaling 8) and extra necks, the steel guitar added a distinctive color to the music. Skilled performers began to be recognized in the bands. Among them were Leon McAuliffe, Noel Boggs, and Speedy West. Thus, we have the three movements: Leon, Noel, and Speedy.
“Ah! Ha! San Antone” is a famous “call” by Bob Wills on his early recording (1938) of San Antonio Rose. The song, performed by Wills and his Texas Playboys, was immensely popular. In 1944, they performed it on the “Grand Ole Opry” and ruffled the feathers of the country music conservatives because of their use of horns and drums. However, the audience loved it.
The composer’s interest in writing this suite is based on his own experience of playing the steel guitar in his adolescent years. This experience has always created a distinct color in his music, but in this work it has become a focus. The dominant-9th chord used as one of the instrument’s common tunings, the parallelism of the bar technique, and the bar “crashes” and glissandi contribute to an overall sound.
Leon McAuliffe was known for his tune Steel Guitar Rag and played in the Wills band where he was recipient of another famous call “Take it away, Leon.” He later formed a large dance band and recording studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma. For the Leon movement, the composer parallels only the character of the famous tune, using a different chord progression and melodic treatment.
Noel Boggs performed with both the Bob Wills and Spade Cooley bands. In listening to a record issued by the armed forces during the WWII period, the composer learned to play Boggs’ arrangement of “Alabama Bound.” The Noel movement is constructed of variation-like passages with the sound of the train orchestrated into the sound fabric.
Speedy West was based in California and had a recording contract with Capitol Records where he produced a series of records with guitarist Jimmy Bryant. Also, for a short time he played in the 23-piece swing band of Spade Cooley. He also made a guest appearance on the Lawrence Welk Show. Although Speedy uses none of his recorded tunes, it does bring to life the unique, fanciful and animated way in which West improvised. The movement begins slowly with a fragment of Bob Wills’ “Right or Wrong.” The old fiddle tune “Ida Red” is also quoted.
Ah! Ha! San Antone makes no pretense of being a western swing composition, but it does have a dance-like character and quotes musical materials from the 30’s to the 50’s.
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.