shendos 12 - Nine Instruments (2013)
Commissioned by: The Seattle Modern Orchestra
Premiere: February 2014, Chapel Performance Space, Seattle, Seattle Modern Orchestra, Julia Tai, conductor.
PURCHASE SCORE (pending publication)
Shendos: a graphical notation system that provides a framework, or score, for an improvisation.
The shendos represent musical activity, or intensity, at a given point in time. This intensity can be made manifest through several musical parameters, including dynamics, tempo, interval size, dissonance, texture, harmonic rhythm, rhythmic complexity, rate of change, etc. Any or all of these or other parameters may be used to achieve an audible representation of the intensity level mapped out in the score.
The timing of a shendo element is always relative to the parts around it (except for solo shendos, which are relative to themselves). The “tempo” chosen at the outset can remain in flux, but should be relatively consistent throughout.
In 1995 I began to experiment with compositions that involved varying levels of improvisation for the performer. The experiment began with the innocent idea of writing music for talented performers and letting them create part of the musical texture themselves. It quickly morphed into a larger philosophical experiment that tested how much control a composer could give up and still be the "author" of their piece. Following the example set by composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman and Earle Brown, I happened upon a notation system that I have been utilizing for the past 18 years, called Shendos. The Shendos are a graphical notation that provides a formal framework of intensity. This framework, or map, directs the players to improvise while following the notation to determine how intense, or active, the musical surface becomes. This increasing and decreasing activity can be made manifest through several musical parameters, including dynamics, tempo, interval size, dissonance, texture, harmonic rhythm, rhythmic complexity, rate of change, etc. Any or all of these parameters may be used to achieve an audible representation of the intensity mapped out in the score. This notation helped me realized that control over these elements were expendable in my compositional process, but that form, pacing and intensity were things I needed to retain control over in order to consider a work "composed by me".
In Shendos No. 12, commissioned by the Seattle Modern Orchestra, I added another element of improvisation, inspired by another composer on tonight's program, Earle Brown. While the composition unfolds, and the players are improvising and following the intensity maps, the conductor will instruct them to shift the intervals that they are using. There are four distinct interval sets, and these sets change several times throughout the piece. In this way, the conductor is an active participant in the process, not just a time-keeper.
I should acknowledge a former professor that I had during graduate school, for my continued devotion to this notation and style of writing. He greeted my first attempt at this kind of writing with a hearty "BOOO!" during a student composers' concert. I knew I was on the right track.