Saturday, May 14, 2011

Grand Polka de bataille: Four-orchestra version, PART ONE

Having announced that this blog will resume, it’s about time I actually resumed it! There being no time like the present, I decided I would write brief descriptions of the music I’ve been writing in the last six months. I’ll start with the most recent one.

I write this from Amsterdam, where I am visiting my friends Charles van Tassel and Cécile Roovers and getting ready for a performance of the latest version of my Grand Polka de bataille. This is a work that exists in three earlier versions. It was originally composed in 1996 for a concert that Keith Moore organized at Wesleyan. Keith was a masters student in composition at the time, and he had the inspiration for a concert that consisted entirely of polkas, featuring the Circus Polka of Stravinsky. He had at his disposal a unique combination of groups and instruments: a string trio (two violins and cello), a saxophone quartet, three grand pianos, a small but quite boisterous pipe organ, and three percussionists.

Imagine a battle of the bands, but they are all polka bands, with oddball constituents. The string trio starts with a tune of 32 bars in D major. Then the saxophone quartet plays another tune in another key. The three pianos and organ play a third tune, ostensibly in a third key but more like a total flurry of dissonant sixteenth notes. The fourth polka tune is for percussion alone, highlighted by a virtuoso timpani solo and a not-so-virtuoso one for snare drum. The initial statements of the tunes are followed by trading eights in the same order, then a scramble of four-bar phrases for 32 bars, a scramble of two-bar phrases, a scramble of one-bar fragments and a scramble of one-beat fragments. The scrambles were generated by a simple chance technique—using a shuffled deck of cards, the suit I turned up (clubs, diamonds, hearts, spades) determined which fragment from which tune was plugged into the appropriate slot in the 32-bar framework. The result—the structure of the polka tune (the macro-level) remains totally predictable, but after the mid-point of the piece what is going to happen next (the micro-level) is completely unpredictable, and becomes disorienting in the extreme.

Shortly after the premiere of this admittedly eccentric but extremely entertaining work I was asked to do an orchestral version. The Wesleyan Orchestra, under the direction of Mel Strauss, did the piece first. Then I modified it slightly for the Ricciotti Ensemble, a group with a somewhat different instrumentation (two alto saxophones, just one trumpet, just one trombone, fewer percussion instruments.) The Wesleyan Orchestra has only played the piece once, but the Ricciotti has played it often (including a performance for Dutch troops serving in Bosnia, another story for another time).

On 4 April, out of the blue, I received the following Email from Gijs Kramers, the current conductor of the Ricciotti Ensemble:

Hi Neely,

At present, I am the conductor and artistic director of the Ricciotti Ensemble, for which you wrote a few very nice pieces in the past!

In May we will be celebrating our jubilee (41 years, and we always celebrate a year late...) In the weekend of the 14/15th we will get together with a lot of people from the old days. On Sunday we will perform throughout Holland with 4 orchestras from 4 different decades and in the evening we will join forces and do a show with the whole lot.

I would very much like to play the Grand polka de bataille then, as this is one of the most fun pieces in our repertoire, but it would obviously be amazing if it were possible to make a version of this for 4 orchestras rather than 4 groups.

Do you have a version like that as well? Or is it something you could possibly make for us? Or would it otherwise be possible (if you have it digitally) to send us the score so we can do it ourselves?

Thanks a lot, hope to hear from you, with best wishes, Gijs Kramers,

It took me about a nanosecond to agree to make a version of the piece for four orchestras, but how to actually make this happen, five weeks before the performance? A very interesting compositional problem—more on this subject tomorrow.

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