Mudra – Bob’s interview with Jack Johnson

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Mudra, 2014 in Philadelphia. Left to right: Bob Becker, Garry Kvistad, Chris Deviney, Alan Abel (Bill Cahn and Russell Hartenberger not visible)


Several weeks ago I received a request to answer a series of questions about my composition Mudra. The questions were answered in April, 2023.

My name is Jack Johnson and I am a grad student at Kansas State University working towards my master’s in percussion performance.  I recently performed Mudra on my recital and am currently working on my master’s report which involves an in-depth analysis of the piece.

Question 1: The program notes mention that Mudra was composed with a “dance-first approach” based on the music of UrbhanaMudra. Does a recording of the original performance of that exist anywhere? If so, where would someone find it?  Who composed the original music for UrbhanaMudra?

BB: UrbhanaMudra was the title given to an original work by the Canadian choreographer Joan Phillips, for which I composed the score. When we began working together in 1989 she already had created much of the dance, including many very intricate rhythms such as those found in Mudra beginning at the piu mosso, measure 215. I created music to fit precise rhythmic dance movements, as well as to accompany many more abstract scenes. The original orchestration was for percussion quartet. The entire choreography lasted around 40 minutes, and was premiered at a major modern dance festival in Toronto in March, 1990. As far as I know, there was no audio or video recording made of the performance.

Later that year I extracted material from the full score to create a stand-alone concert suite, which I titled Mudra. I expanded the instrumentation by adding crotales and additional bass drum parts for a fifth performer. I also composed new material to extend some of the development sections, for example around measures 294 through 302. Mudra was included in NEXUS’ touring repertoire for several years, and eventually was published in 2003 by Keyboard Percussion Publications.

Question 2: Can you elaborate on your composition process for Mudra as well as your compositional process for your other works? How, if at all, did you approach composing Mudra differently?

BB: Mudra was the result of collaborating with a dancer based on pre-existing choreography. In 1994 I was commissioned by Canadian choreographers Danny Grossman and Rina Singha to create a score for a large theatre work, and There is a Time was the result. That piece was only partly choreographed in advance, so the influence went in both directions. Another example of this kind of collaboration is Prisoners of the Image Factory, which involved creating the score for a pre-existing short film using time code. A substantial part of my compositional output has involved setting poetic text, which is essentially collaboration with a writer: for example, Cryin’ Time, Never in Word, Time in the Rock, Clear Things May Not Be Seen, and To Immortal Bloom.

Mudra was an important step for me because it initiated a method of working that involved creating a musical language derived from very personal knowledge and experience. If you want to read more about it, take a look at my article Finding a Voice in the Cambridge Companion to Percussion, ed. Russell Hartenberger, C.U.P., 2016.

Question 3: Can you go into detail about your marching influence on the piece?

BB: There is no intentional reference to marching or drum corps in Mudra. Of course the technical language that underlies the prepared drum part is that of traditional snare drum rudiments, and I think many performers now view the piece as a rudimental drum feature; however, in the original dance work the drum part was not as continuously soloistic as it is throughout most of Mudra. Although marching is not part of my background, rudimental drumming is. As soon as I began studying tabla I could see that both styles are based technically on a “rudimental” approach, and that there is a fundamental similarity between western ideas of rhythm and meter, and the concept of tala in Hindustani music.

Question 4: Can you talk about your background in Indian Classical music? 

BB: During June 1970, while I was in my Master’s Degree program at the Eastman School of Music, I enrolled in a one-month intensive session on North Indian (Hindustani) classical music at the University of Rochester. I was able to study the history and theory of raga with Dr. Harold S. Powers, and to undertake elementary training in tabla performance with Gnan Prakash Ghosh. During the year that followed I tried to keep up my practice on tabla, including having a few lessons in NYC with Zakir Hussein. After finishing my degree at Eastman, I moved to Middletown, CT and began world music studies with various teachers at Wesleyan University, including Pandit Sharda Sahai, who eventually became my long-term tabla teacher in a traditional guru-disciple relationship.

During the 1980s I made two trips to India to continue my studies with Pandit Sahai and his family, and to get more experience in traditional accompaniment contexts, in particular with Kathak dance. I made my tabla solo debut in Varanasi at the Nagri Natak Academy Concert Hall in 1982. For ten years I directed a summer tabla seminar at the University of Toronto, which was taught by Pandit Sahai, sometimes along with his son Vishnu. During the 1980s and 90s I had opportunities to perform together with some major Indian artists, as well as with many western performers who were working to learn the music as I was.

Question 5: Can you explain in more detail how raga Chandrakauns was used through the composition process and maybe point performers to specific bar numbers to reference this?

BB: The scale degrees of rag Chandrakauns are stated explicitly in the opening measures of Mudra: tonic, minor third, major fourth, minor sixth, major seventh. The chords built up there result from stacking the same intervals vertically above each of the notes as they appear in the vibes part in measures 12 through 16. The marimba tremolo is the kind of drone that would appear in a typical performance of the raga, sounding what are called vadi and samvadi of the rag’s scale (i.e., tonic and major fourth – something like tonic and dominant in western music, although there is no fifth in Chandrakauns). Stacking the intervals this way was the basis for deriving a harmonic concept for the piece.

Question 6: Can you explain in more detail palta and how understanding it can help in understanding the piece at a deeper level as well as how it is used compositionally? 

BB: Palta is the Hindi word used by many Indian musicians to refer to variations made on a theme. In tabla playing there are a number of forms that use this concept, the principal ones being kaida and rela. The themes are usually rather short, with a limited number of strokes that appear in a structure similar to a poetic rhyme scheme – for example, A B A’ B (the difference between the A and A’ lines is a change in the resonance of the left-hand drum, the bayan). Variations are created by repeating, extending, and reordering the material in the theme while maintaining the rhyming structure. Palta may be memorized by tabla students at first, but the aim is to develop an ability to create them spontaneously in performance. Examples of the use of palta in Mudra occur at measure 278, and at meausre 334.

Question 7: Can you explain in more detail ti hai and how understanding it can help in understanding the piece at a deeper level as well as how it is used compositionally? Also, explain how palta and ti hai work together. 

BB: A ti hai is simply a rhythmic figure (of any length and shape) that is repeated three times. There are usually gaps (rests) of some length between the first and second, and then between the second and third statement of the figure. By definition, the gaps must be identical length. The rhythmic figures in ti hais almost always end with an accented stroke, and on the third repeat this accented stroke must land on a pre-determined beat, usually the first beat in a rhythmic cycle, or tala. The arithmetic of ti hai construction can be complex, and there is a very exciting building of tension as the three repeats occur against the background of a cyclic tala. The conclusion of a ti hai on the correct beat can be as satisfying as the resolution of a harmonic cadence on a tonic chord.

Ti hai is used throughout Hindustani music by all dancers, singers, and instrumentalists. It is not necessarily connected with palta; however, when tabla players develop a motive or theme such as a kaida, the concluding figure is almost always a ti hai, and then usually based on the material in the final palta. One example of this idea in Mudra occurs from measure 305 to the downbeat of measure 314.

Question 8: Mudra is deceptively difficult to understand and perform. If someone was teaching or learning the piece, what rehearsal/practice advice would you give them? 

BB: The best practice for the prepared drum part in Mudra would be my drum solo piece Lahara (also published by KPP) – in particular, the sections labeled kaida, bant, and rela. Those three use the palta form of variation and development described earlier. They are also demanding to play at tempo, and if practiced regularly can help with improving strength and endurance, which are requirements for executing the final passages in Mudra.

Question 9: Can you shed some light on how someone might analyze the harmonic structure of the work through the lens of Western music? 

BB: My use of harmony in Mudra was intuitive, based on the exploration of stacking intervals as described previously, and then choosing sonorities that I liked. It’s not connected to traditional harmonic progressions in classical western music.

Question 10: Is there anything in terms of Sound that you think people need to know in order to actualize the piece the way it was intended? 

BB: 1) Prepared drum. The drum should be prepared in the way explained in the score, and tuned to A natural if possible. There is some additional information about it, as well as photos, on my blog HERE. When playing Mudra myself I have used two different pairs of drumsticks. For the first part I use my BBSD model, which until recently was made by Malletech as part of the PHD series of drumsticks. Beginning at measure 216 I switch to a heavier type of stick with a hollow bore to create a bigger and more aggressive sound.

2) Bass drum. The bass drum should be a large concert type, but needs to be slightly muted for the places with rapid figures. Otherwise, I prefer the sound to be deep and resonant (for example, the passage at measure 118). When possible, I have suggested using two bass drums – a smaller muted one for fast playing with two mallets; and a large one for everything else. I like to hear a distinct change in timbre after the downbeat accent at measure 293, either by removing the mute, or by changing drums and using a larger mallet. If two bass drums are used, I would play both drums simultaneously for the sffz shots beginning at measure 354.

3) Songbells. Songbells are no longer manufactured, and so it is indicated in the score and the part that a vibraphone may be substituted. Songbells is a transposing instrument the same as the xylophone. It is absolutely critical that this part be played one octave higher than written throughout the piece, otherwise the voicing of the chords will be destroyed.

4) Mallets. The metalophone choir (glock, songbells, vibes) should have a homogeneous sound. Players should change mallets when indicated, and select the softer and harder mallets to maintain a consistent voicing. For the beginning build-up passage (and again at measure 167) I recommend the glockenspiel player use hard rubber mallets; songbells (even if playing this part on a vibes) use medium rubber mallets; and vibraphone use soft vibraphone mallets. The overall sound should be delicate – something like a celesta. The vibrato effect is important in the vibes part, and should be on or off as indicated. The motor speed should be rather slow, but not so slow as to be unnoticeable.

Question 11: Is there anything in terms of Harmony that you think people need to know in order to actualize the piece the way it was intended?

BB: Not really. Voicing chords throughout Mudra should be accomplished mainly by choosing carefully the mallets used on the metalophones. It’s helpful if the glockenspiel has a pedal, in order to clarify chord notes as well as moving lines. The two vibraphones of course can pedal ad lib. I would point out that all three metalophones are l.v. in the build-up passages, and so should not use pedal there. The ringing sounds should create a cloud-like effect.

Question 12: Is there anything in terms of Melody that you think people need to know in order to actualize the piece the way it was intended?

BB: Play musically, and phrase the lines when slurs indicate a legato approach.

Question 13: Is there anything in terms of Rhythm that you think people need to know in order to actualize the piece the way it was intended?

BB: Play musically and with spirit when the passages are very rhythmic – exaggerate the accents.

Question 14: Is there anything in terms of Growth and the Form that you think people need to know in order to actualize the piece the way it was intended?

BB: Mudra is episodic, just as the original choreography was. I think the formal structure is fairly obvious to most listeners. An underlying issue addressed in the dance is the potential for misunderstanding and even violence in multi-cultural societies such as exist in Toronto. The music reflects this to an extent, but also the potential for understanding and accord.

Question 15: Is there anything else you want people to know about Mudra that people generally don’t know or get wrong?

BB: The Hindi word mudra refers to miming gestures, mostly made with the head, hands and arms in many Indian dance styles. Kathak dance, which is the style that both Joan Phillips and I were familiar with, evolved from story-telling. Both the choreography and the music convey a sense of narrative. I often describe Mudra as a miniature ballet suite where the music, although abstract by itself, still holds an implicit sense of a story-line seen in the dance.

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