Never in Word – more questions from Lan KaiPo

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In July, 2021 I received an additional series of questions from percussionist Lan KaiPo regarding my composition Never in Word, as well as some general questions about my compositional method. LKP is currently continuing research for his doctoral dissertation “An Analysis and Performance Guide of Bob Becker’s Never in Word” at James Madison University. His questions and my answers follow.

LKP. Thank you for answering the previous questions. After moving back to my home country Taiwan, I recently resumed working on the project. When I sorted out the information from our last interview and did analyze some of your published works, I came up with some follow-up questions: 

I find that stacked augmented chords and whole-tone scale are often used in your vocal chamber compositions, such as Never in Word (1998) and To Immortal Bloom (2017). Are those interval relationships resulting from a matrix of four non-transposable nine tone scales? Would you briefly describe the matrix system?

BB. Yes, the nine-tone scales I use are of two symmetrical forms: TSSTSSTSS and SSTSSTSST. Using the twelve notes of the chromatic scale, there are two forms of each scale possible without repetition – for example, beginning on C and beginning on Db (the specific “beginning” note is arbitrary). In my music, the four scales can function something like “keys”. I make it a rule for vertical construction (i.e., chords) that notes appearing simultaneously cannot be chosen from more than one scale. I tend to favor voicings with six-note chords, but that is not a strict rule in my music. You’re right that augmented chords, the augmented scale and the whole-tone scale appear often in my work, as do certain altered chords and Scriabin’s famous “mystic chord”: tonic – dim 5th – flat 7th – M10th – M13th – M16th (M9th plus octave). I also use the same scales for melodic construction, sometimes using a quasi-serial approach where tones don’t repeat while in a specific “key”; however, it’s not a rigorous part of my technique. The interval relations of the Hindustani raga Chandrakauns also appear in each scale: tonic – m3rd – P4th – m6th – M7th.

LKP. Do you extend the compositional process into the rehearsal as what Reich did to his work Music for 18 Musicians (1976)? Would you like to share a specific event or experience during working with the players of Bob Becker Ensemble?

BB. No, I brought compositions to the ensemble fully completed. I haven’t tried to develop a piece in sections the way Reich did with Six Pianos or Music for 18 Musicians. One practical thing I learned from Steve is the usefulness of “pre-rehearsals”, particularly when a piece involves instruments I can’t play myself. The idea is simply to uncover any specific technical problems, and to refine things like articulations and bowings, in advance of paid tutti rehearsals. I still use this approach, and like many composers, I continue to revise certain elements of a piece even after the first performance.

LKP. Since the orchestration of Water Lilies (2012) is similar to the one of the previous piece Preludes (2010), are there other connections or developments between these two works? What contributes to the structure of those works respectively?

BB. The only structural connection between those two pieces is the use of the scale matrix discussed above. Of course the orchestration of Preludes influenced the choice of instruments for Water Lilies. Preludes is based directly on my earlier work Time in the Rock, and because of that it has a consistently lyrical quality even though there are no human voices involved. Water Lilies is more abstract, with no basis in any text. The inspiration came mainly from the French impressionist Claude Monet, his garden at Giverny, and the Nymphéas series of paintings created late in his life.

LKP. Where is the original text of Clear Things May Not Be Seen (2018) from? Is there any general rule as you selected the poems from Aiken’s serial poem Time in the Rock? Also, any consideration as you edited the text?

BB. The text for Clear Things was chosen from poems XCII and LXXXIX in Time in the Rock, and from section I of the 1916 poem Miracles. I selected parts of each poem, and edited them to create the lyrics for my piece. Considerations were: 1) keeping a manageable overall length for the work; 2) using words and phrases that were flowing and that would create a cantabile feeling, particularly in the slower final section of the piece; and 3) choosing text that maintained a consistent mood and that carried a quasi-narrative sense, set up by the opening imagery: “To the wild night which everywhere awaits you and the deep darkness full of sounds…”

LKP. Past, present and future of relationships: what have you accomplished in one of your earliest works The Firefly Hunt (1967)? What are some of your recent goals in composition?

BB.The Firefly Hunt was a student piece, written for an assignment in one of my composition classes at Eastman. It’s a setting of a Japanese haiku, and it was my first composition using voice.

My goal as a composer is to continue exploring the techniques and materials developed in pieces like Mudra and Never in Word. If you haven’t read it already, you should look at my article “Finding a Voice”, published in The Cambridge Companion to Percussion (ed. Russell Hartenberger, Cambridge University Press, 2016). It gives details about my views regarding composing for percussion instruments, as well as a discussion of the origin of my compositional method.

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