Okay, I should warn everyone up front that this post on my Sihr Halal tune, "Mancala," is going to descend into full-bore geekitude with alarming alacrity. Most of this inside baseball stuff is probably only of interest to other composers (if that), so if you find yourself scratching your head and going "meta-what-tric, now?", there is a much more user-friendly explanation (with audio excerpts) on the podcast. And hey, if you need a break from all the wonkitude below, why not play some mancala online? (Thanks, AFL-CIO Arcade! I'm proud to be part of a union that's striving to meet America's online gaming needs.)
All right, then. First off, let's talk about the rules. Normally I'm not one for coming up with an array of pre-compositional rules -- I generally like to mess around a bit and see where the music seems likely to take me before locking anything down. But since this is a piece which shares a name with what is likely the oldest extant board game, I figured this time, I ought to come up with some rules for the music before I started to write.
Rule #1: This piece has two rhythms.
And that's it. For the entire piece. Each player is assigned either to Rhythm #1:
... or to Rhythm #2:
... and, for the most part, that's the team they play for the whole way through. Cello and bass clarinet and percussion 2 play for the Rhythm #1 team. Oboe and violin and percussion 1 play for the Rhythm #2 team. Koto starts on the Rhythm #1 team, but turns out to be a double-agent for Rhythm #2... or is she really a triple agent? Not even Yumi knows anymore.
My original idea was to have the laptop act as referee (by playing both rhythms simultaneously and metronomically), but that proved unduly constraining, so now the laptop behaves more like a stadium full of soccer hooligans, shouting obscenities at the players and doing their best to disrupt the game.
Rule #2: Displacement is allowed.
In other words, these patterns can begin on any beat. For instance, from the very beginning of the piece, Rhythm #2 is displaced backwards by one beat, so that the "six-eighths-followed-by-six-quarter-note-triplets" pattern actually begins on beat 7. Except they actually enter on beat 1. Like this:
This particular displacement creates the following composite rhythm -- in other words, this is the pattern you get if you play Rhythm #1 and the above displacement of Rhythm #2 at the same time:
Like I said on the podcast, this would be a real bear to play if you gave it to a single player. Especially beat 3, where you have to go from subdividing in sixteenths for the first half-beat to subdividing in sixteenth triplets for the second half-beat. (Try it yourself, it's a real mindfuck.) But by splitting it up into two much simpler rhythms, the thing becomes much more playable, and you get the above pattern as a cross-rhythm.
[At this point, you may be inclined to accuse me of biting Michael Gordon's rhymes. Okay, I'll cop to that -- I'm definitely an M.G. fan. But although this piece is the first time I've tried to incorporate some of the rhythmic conceits I've
stolen learned from Gordon in any kind of systematic way, I like to think I have my own spin on this stuff -- less proggy, maybe, and more fluid -- at least, that's the idea. And perhaps a bit more playful, I think. It is a game, after all.]
Anyway, the above figure is the main groove that we try to settle into at first. Near the middle of the piece, though, I start mirroring them, so that the bass clarinet plays the four dotted eighths at the beginning of the bar (i.e., vanilla Rhythm #1), but the cello plays them at the end of the bar (i.e., Rhythm #1 displaced four beats later). And near the end the piece, I start moving Rhythm #1 back a beat while moving Rhythm #2 forward a beat, every three cycles, until I go through all the possible juxtapositions. This part is really, really hard and makes the players conspire to poison my coffee during rehearsal breaks. But when it all comes together, it sounds wicked cool. Trust me.
Rule #3: Subdivision is allowed.
As long as it's equal subdivision. For instance, for the Rhythm #2 team, instead of playing six eighth notes, they might play twelve sixteenth notes. And instead of quarter-note triplets, they might play eighth note triplets. In fact, that's exactly what I have the koto do at some point, and the percussionists are free to subdivide at will throughout, so long as they stick to their respective teams.
Rule #4: Rests are allowed.
But not encouraged. Obviously, the wind instruments need to breathe occasionally, so they don't always play every note of the pattern. Sometimes I have them hold on certain notes while their teammates repeat them. And the piece actually begins with the two percussionists gradually assembling Rhythm #1 from nothing -- first with just one note each, then two, etc.
Rule #5: This piece has seven modes.
Yeah, the same seven modes everyone learns off of the Jamey Abersold scale syllabus when they are first learning to improvise. We start with the brightest mode -- lydian -- and work our way down through ionian, mixolydian, dorian, aeolian, and phrygian, ending with locrian, before rebooting on lydian again for another (faster) run through the cycle. I came up with a progression that I thought emphasized the inherent qualities of each mode, and made for nice transitions between them. It is as follows:
D lyd. - B ion. - Ab mixo. - F dor. - F# aeol. - Eb phryg. - C loc.
Rule #6: For the solo sections, all bets are off.
Not for the ensemble, obviously. But for the players that get to take a turn blowing (Ben on oboe and Meg on violin), they can take it wherever they feel it, given the underlying context. Only thing is, both "solos" are actually battles with Jacob, so they've got to keep their wits about them, or he's going to capture all their notes.
So there you have it. The Marquis de Queensbury rules, at least. But be forewarned -- I can't promise I won't cheat if you turn your back on me. And while I won't deny there's always a certain Jenga-like tension in the air when we break out this piece, what fun would it be if the outcome was predetermined?