Alexander Hawkins - One Tree Found
Notes by Alexander Hawkins to accompany his piece 'One Tree Found' - broadcast on Jazz on 3 March 25th 2013.
ONE TREE FOUND: Notes by Alexander Hawkins
When I was growing up, I was an organist (of sorts). I think many would agree that one of the peaks of the organ repertoire – both in terms of musical accomplishment and technical demand on the performer – is Bach’s set of six trio sonatas. The main technical challenges of these works derive from their texture: the three voices are all of essentially equal importance, meaning, crudely speaking, that your left hand has got to be able to do what your right hand can do (no problem), and that your feet have got to be able to do what your hands can do (more of a problem). Talk to any organist, and they’ll probably confirm that the three part texture of the trio sonata is etched somewhere in their musical make-up.
Obviously it’s old news that three is a magic number. But for me, it’s an especially magic number not only in the hands of J.S. Bach, but also those of the ‘Hot Bach’ (as a 1944 piece in The New Yorker famously referred to Duke Ellington). It’s not necessarily a three-part counterpoint in Ellington: moreso, it’s magical orchestrations of three instruments grouped together. The famous examples would be the clarinet/trumpet/trombone section of Mood Indigo, and the countless passages featuring Duke’s ‘pep’ section (the usually-muted trio of two trumpets and trombone; although for a wonderful variant, I love the all-trombone trio in ‘The Telecasters’, from Such Sweet Thunder).
Movement I begins with three part counterpoint – the organist in me. But although I used to spend hours a day at that instrument, the Duke fan in me is much, much bigger than the organist in me, so one of the voices in the counterpoint is itself composed of a sort-of three part ‘pep’ section – two trumpets, and bass clarinet. The melodic material in this voice is what reappears in Movement IV (subtitled ‘The Hot Bach’). Indeed, Movement I in general serves to introduce much of the material which recurs throughout the composition as a whole: so, for example, the sopranino saxophone/’cello line reappears as the basis for the ‘dance’ section of Movement VI.
Relatively soon in Movement I, the sense of three-part counterpoint begins to fade as the lines begins to go out of phase; and in fact, we’re really hearing 8 parts. I wanted to capture here that odd tension I hear in some baroque pieces, especially heavily contrapuntal passages, between complete textural clarity, and a complete textural barrage. Especially listening to more dense contrapuntal passages, I may begin with hyper ‘rational’ ears: hearing the parts, the voice-leading, and so forth; but then, at some indefinable moment, realise that I’ve lost the rational thread; that the whole thing has become more ‘three dimensional’, and that really, I’m existing in a big swirl of sound (a little like with Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music: the most thrilling way to listen can simply be not to try too hard, but just to let the music ‘happen’ to you). To put it another way, it’s a little bit like those ‘Magic Eye’ puzzles they used to have in the newspaper…you’re staring, concentrating on a two-dimensional matrix of dots, and yet at some stage before long realise that you’ve actually entered the image, which has acquired depth and become three-dimensional.
For me, that sense of spatial depth is furthered by dividing the ensemble into sub-groupings (as the movement develops, the bass clarinet/drums duo; the sopranino/two trumpets trio; the sopranino/’cello/drums trio; the brass choir). This is the three-dimensional soundworld, for example, of walking down the street – or, as Ives noticed, sitting in the crowd at a football match (Yale – Princeton Football Game, 1898). This technique of sub-groupings for me has clear parallels with the antiphonal devices favoured in the Renaissance and Baroque periods: antiphony being the alternating use of two (or more) separated choirs of voices or instruments, often in call-and-response fashion. In fact, I think the first time I was ever lucky enough to be on BBC Radio 3 was as a 15 or 16 year old chorister; we performed Bach’s motet ‘Singet Dem Herrn’, which contains a particular flash of antiphonal writing about 2 minutes in which still remains a favourite moment of mine in all of Bach’s output. Other masters of antiphonal writing were Gabrieli and Monteverdi (I suppose the former might more properly be thought of as a renaissance, rather than baroque, composer). Often in their works, the choirs were spatially separated, and said as a result to be ‘spezzati’. This idea of spezzati has clear parallels too in much of the more contemporary music which inspires me: Braxton (e.g. Composition 82 for Four Orchestra); Ives (e.g. the fourth symphony); and so on. In contrast to older styles, which typically alternate the various choirs, these more recent sound-worlds often make use of different groupings simultaneously – a device which recurs throughout my own piece.
A short remark on the improvisations. In certain passages in Bach’s music, he chooses to notate ornaments in full, rather than to use shorthand notations for them. It’s almost as though for Bach, ornaments were misunderstood: they were not necessarily decorations, but instead were sometimes actual substantive melodic information (I feel very strongly the same way about Tatum’s so-called decorative style: yes there is a lot happening, but for me, it is all integral: I simply don’t hear ‘superficial’ notes). At various passages in this piece, I have stipulated language to be used in improvisation: so, for example, at the point at which the ensemble first enters a long-note passage in this movement, they begin to use trill and glissando figures – not as decoration, but as substantive units of melodic material. Interestingly, as with ornamentation in the Baroque period, perhaps now with extended technique in improvising. We are long (45 and more years) past the point where extended techniques were decorations to the language; indeed, it’s now somewhat misleading to call them ‘extended’, in certain respects, since many such techniques are part of the basic vocabulary of almost all players. Extended techniques are now integral to the language of improvisers, much the same as perhaps certain ornaments were to Bach.
Movement I is composed of 15-bar units – the same is also true of the final movement of the piece. I can’t even begin to conceive of many of the complex architectures used in various great baroque works, but here is a humble attempt at least at a little straightforward symmetry.
The texture here is still basically three-part: an ‘improvising’ voice; the baritone saxophone/contrabass clarinet voice; and the euphonium/tuba voice.
On the contrabass clarinet: any young organist is lying if (s)he doesn’t confess to the megalomaniac’s impulse to pull out the ‘thirty-two foot’. This is a very big, exceedingly low pedal stop (to give a rough guide: an 8’ stop produces a note at the pitch played – depress middle C, and middle C you’ll hear. A 16’ stop will give the octave beneath this, and is usually the lowest stop available on small-to-medium sized instruments. Move into cathedrals and bigger churches/concert halls, however, and you may come across a 32’…play the bottom note on a pedal board with a 32’ stop out, and it’s low low.) Anyway – I realised with the contrabass clarinet that I was responding to this same megalomania…
The saxophone/clarinet and lower brass are voiced in compound major 3rds throughout. Parallel major thirds have an odd sound in many respects, but one which is also familiar to organists who have a ‘tierce’ stop at their disposal.
There is only a single written motif in this movement, which moves through various transpositions. It’s not infrequent to find composers encoding names, or other texts, in their work. B-A-C-H, for example, happens to transpose very nicely into musical notes (since in Germany, ‘B’ denotes our B-flat; and H our B-natural); and Bach himself used the resulting motif (as, for example, did Liszt in his Fantasia and Fugue on BACH, another work I used to play a lot). Schumann and Shostakovich were also keen on textual play. The transpositions in this movement are derived not from ‘BACH’, but from ‘THE HOT BACH’. Sitting on my piano as I wrote this whole piece, I had a table of various intervallic relationships which I had drawn up from myself derived from this nickname for Duke.
Movement III (One Tree Found)
Movement III plays some more on the idea of sub-groupings playing antiphonally. The three ‘voices’ are the tuba/contrabass clarinet/’cello/double bass/drums; the solo trumpet; and the two flutes.
The low grouping works with a repeated 25-bar sequence. One of the things about Baroque music, which fascinates me is that, perhaps even until the minimalist movement, it represents the last musical language of western ‘classical music’ in which repetition was such an important norm (as it always has been in so many of the other traditions of the world). Classical and Romantic music have, to me, always seemed to be much more to do with development, as seen in sonata form, perhaps the classic structure of these periods (even though, ironically, sonata form owes a huge amount to fugue, one of the arch Baroque methodologies).
Here, the low instruments stay in the 25-bar loop sequence for the duration of the movement (with some conducted interruptions). I wanted to capture with the swinging line – which, I hope lopes around in that territory between ‘swagger’ and ‘stagger’ – something of the feel of the ‘notes inégales’ of Baroque performance practice: the ‘swung quavers’ of 300-odd years ago.
The flutes enter towards the end of the movement, in a completely unrelated timespace and harmonic area, playing the same material as the euphonium/tuba/baritone saxophone/contrabass clarinet dealt with in Movement II. I was thinking of this as the acoustic echo of Movement II – an extreme version of the sensation the organist gets sending a note into the space of a large cathedral, and hearing it come back seconds later.
Setting the flutes and low instruments going on unrelated paths is a take on the ‘cori spezzati’ antiphonal effect, even if here they’re sometimes playing at the same time, rather than in dialogue with each other. This is how the piece got its name. I like to think about wordplay and the sound of words when coming up with titles. Since my pieces aren’t ‘about’ things, in the literal sense, I often like to play around, almost crossword-style, in order to come up with a word or phrase which sounds suitable, intriguing, or whatever, by way of title. Here, the rough process was something like:
‘An’ = indefinite article = ‘one’
‘ti’ = ‘two’ (almost) = ‘three’ (almost, and after all, there are three voices here) = ‘tree’ (again, almost)
‘phon’ = ‘found’
hence, ‘One Tree Found’.
Movement IV (Totem/The Hot Bach)
Movement IV consists of two units of material. The ‘cello, double bass and drums play a ‘Totem’ – a name I’ve given to a group of compositions of mine which have a cyclical way of notating a specific type of feel (here’s another example from my Ensemble: Tatum Totem III). Essentially, these pieces consist of passages of equal length notes (which, when played in low stringed instruments, such as here, can sound like a walking bass), spelled by stipulated lengths of improvisation. The cyclical nature of these pieces seemed to me to echo nicely the repetitive nature of another ubiquitous Baroque form, the passacaglia. In this version of the Totem, the ratios of the even notes to the improvised passages are derived from ‘THE HOT BACH’, as explained above.
On top of the ‘Totem’ sits the sub-composition called ‘The Hot Bach’. My ‘jumping-off point’ here was a particular chord voicing of Ellington’s which I have always loved (I think I first heard it in one of his countless masterpieces from the 20s, Black Beauty). My Ellington fixation again: the melody once more uses a trio of instruments (here, two flutes and a muted trumpet). At the ends of phrases, these instruments take it in turns to play short cadenzas, much as the organist in a choral would elaborate the harmony briefly when a fermata marked a phrase ending.
Movement V (Imperfect Baobabs)
In jazz terms, this is our ballad; in compositional terms, it’s my take on canon. Having mentioned Bach’s six ‘numbered’ trio sonatas earlier, I neglected to mention one of my very favourite of his compositions in the trio sonata style, the Canonic Variations on the Chorale ‘Von Himmel Hoch’. This was a work I first met at age 14 or 15, and, having been used to canons essentially being of the ‘Frère Jacques’ variety, it’s fair to say it blew me away. More recently, I’ve spent a lot of time with the mind-blowing invention of the Musical Offering. Bach seems to delight in his technique – and give the music emotional content through the joy of exercising and expressing technique – which I suppose I hear, unlikely as it may sound, in jazz musicians such as Freddie Hubbard and Johnny Griffin.
This is a very simple canon though – mostly at the octave or unison. Each instrumentalist (contrabass clarinet and tuba excepted) has the same melodic material, which is worked through at a pace of the performer’s discretion. I suppose, insofar as it’s a rhythmic canon too in this respect, it owes something to Nancarrow’s music, which is also a body of work I love.
The piece generates harmony by the act of the melodic material being moved through at different paces. The ‘baobabs’ of the title is because the piece shares a structural device with other pieces of mine, the earliest of which – for reasons which it would take me too long to explain here, and I’m concerned may not be interesting to anyone apart from myself – was called simply ‘Baobabs’ (‘Unknown Baobabs’ is another in the series). ‘Imperfect’ baobabs, because the Portuguese term ‘barroca’ was once used to describe an irregular pearl – one which did not have the regularity and symmetry of a ‘better’ specimen – and so one which was in some way vulgar or ‘imperfect’.
Again, the intrumentalists have the freedom to improvise short cadenzas at the phrase endings in their melodies.
All the while, the tuba and contrabass clarinet play a second line, initially in antiphony, before then becoming freer.
…begins as a dance movement, after a transitional passage in the low brass, drums, and alto saxophone. Melodically, the information here was first set out in the sopranino saxophone in the first movement; but my main compositional focus was rhythmic.
One of the things which characterises a lot of Baroque music is the dance. Bach’s French Overture is a perfect example. Each movement is based on a dance, and each dance is characterised by a particular rhythmic pattern. So, the Courante is a dance in triple metre, with a characteristic upbeat. The Passepied is not dissimilar in some respects, although it is faster. Gigues and sarabandes are also triple metre dances with their own characteristic stresses, and extremely different from one another. Gavottes are in 2 or 4, and begin in the middle of the bar. Bourrées are similar to gavottes, although begin not in the middle of the bar, but on its last beat. The list could go on.
This movement sets up a simple 4/4 loop – stilted, but I hope still dancing - which it then systematically subverts by the insertion of a 5/4 bar at certain points. This has the effect of shifting the listener’s sense of where the first beat of the ‘bar’ actually is; a little bit like if all these Baroque dance movements were superimposed on top of one another.
This new dance then gradually dissolves to leave the trumpet for a solo cadenza. The history of the solo horn in jazz and improvised music has of course been well-rehearsed in any number of places (taking in everything from Coleman Hawkins’ legendary Picasso, to the output of contemporary masters such as Evan Parker, Wadada Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton); and of course, the solo also occupies a special place in the Baroque repertoire, with Bach’s partitas for violin, and ‘cello suites, being amongst his best known and best loved works.
Movement VII (Puzzle)
This movement, like the first movement, is built of 15-bar units. It begins by reconstructing these units from melodic fragments. I wrote this at around the time I was spending a lot of time, as mentioned previously, with Bach’s ‘Musical Offering’. One of the many remarkable canons from the Musical Offering has a peculiar property which is that it modulates upwards on each iteration – it is a neverending canon. On writing the first 15-bar chunk of this composition, I noticed that rather than modulating upwards, it was in fact modulating downwards by a semitone on each iteration.
The piece is a very simple puzzle, in that it (re)constructs a picture from its constituent parts. Looking at a composer such as Bach, it’s easy perhaps to overlook the almost puckish, ludic quality to a lot of his compositions (again, the Musical Offering, with its mischievous inscriptions, is a perfect example). Game pieces, broadly understood, are not a contemporary invention.