by Paul Dresher
1st Movement: Cage Machine
2nd Movement: Chorale Times Two
This work came out of a desire to compose again for the extraordinary violinist David Abel and to tackle a form for which I have had very mixed feelings. In 1989, working closely with David, I had composed for him, Julie Steinberg and Willie Winant one of my favorite works, Double Ikat. After this we discussed the possibility of working together again, perhaps in a larger ensemble context, such as orchestra. The idea remained unexplored until David, at a Christmas party at Alvin Curran’s home in the winter of 1994, suggested that, rather than trying to work with an orchestra, it might be more intriguing to compose a concerto for him and my own Ensemble. This immediately seemed like an interesting notion and one that might attract other composers. We approached Alvin Curran, who had also composed for David, and eventually this idea became a successful proposal to the Creative Work Fund, which has generously and patiently supported the commissioning and production of these works.
Each of the two movements is complete and largely self-contained and has even been performed as separate works. It was my original intention to compose only a large single movement work of 15-18 minutes duration. However, as the work proceeded, it became clear that the composition had taken on a much larger scope and would need to be divided into two movements.
I have always been rather ambivalent about the concerto form, at least as it has come down to us through the heritage of the late 18th and 19th centuries. The form largely seemed to be expressed in terms of conflict and resolution between the soloist and ensemble and it was often a vehicle for technical display at the expense of other musical values. This was inherently against my basic interest in an equal-voiced or layered contrapuntal approach in forming the relationships between musicians playing together. In approaching this form I felt I had to explore different possible relationships, ones that more honestly reflect both my musical and social perspectives.
In each of the movements I have used contrasting models for the instrumental ensemble: in the first movement, Cage Machine, it is that of a rock and roll band; in the second movement, Chorale Times Two, it is an orchestra. The first is characterized by a constant rhythmic intensity, relative harmonic stasis and very rhythmically interlocked parts. The soloist moves in and out of a foreground role, often becoming part of the rhythm “machine” and then emerging to the foreground, often bringing another instrumentalist with him into an interlocked foreground dialogue. The second movement is virtually the opposite: slow, rhythmically ambiguous and both harmonically and melodically focused.
The title of the first movement, Cage Machine, and most of the electronic keyboard and percussion sounds in the whole work are indebted to John Cage and his invention, the prepared piano. I have long been inspired by the revolutionary idea of Cage’s invention as well as the music he composed for the instrument. In fact, one of my original concepts in forming the Electro-Acoustic Band was to be able to explore, in an electronic domain, some aspect of Cage’s work for the prepared piano. In the fall of 1995 pianist Julie Steinberg performed and recorded Cage’s magnum opus in this medium, Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano.She generously arranged for Jay Cloidt and me to have access to her set-up at Mills College for a long night of sampling. These sounds, transposed and transformed, comprise the primary sonic palette of the work. I am deeply indebted to Julie for the exemplary quality of her “preparation” and for her permission to use these sounds in an entirely different context. Her wonderful recording of the Sonata and Interludes for Prepared Piano is available on the Music and Arts label.