Strange Humors

I’ve been working all week on my new piece, “Strange Humors.” It’s a transcription for wind ensemble of a piece that I originally wrote back in 1998 for string quartet and djembe.

I wrote the original as a project in the “Composers & Choreographers Workshop” class at Juilliard — the year after I graduated. I’ll never understand how this happened, but not enough composers signed up for the class that fall, so the teachers called me to come in and be the ringer. I had been temping full-time at some gawdawful Book of the Month Club company, and I was miserable. After graduating, I had it in my head that people would, you know, want me to write music for them. But nobody did, so I got a job, and got up every morning bright and early, took the subway to east Midtown Manhattan, and did this miserable, seemingly-useless job for 9 hours every day. So when I got the call from Liz Keen, the ChoreoComp teacher, in September, I was thrilled — to say the least.

It’s weird going back to school and taking a class after you’ve graduated. The biggest difference — to me — was that I truly appreciated the opportunity to be there. I had taken the class twice “officially” while I was in school, and enjoyed it both times, but this time — taken during a 3-hour lunch from my temp job every Thursday — it was like crack.

Rather than ramble on like I usually do (too late, I guess), I’ll make the story a bit shorter by saying that I wrote “Strange Humors,” gave the recording to Robert Battle (who would become my most frequent collaborative partner — we made “Juba,” “Rush Hour,” “Breakdown Tango” [which became “Redline Tango” when I orchestrated it], “Damn,” “Mass,” and a few other pieces together), Robert choreographed it, and it, thanks to Robert’s choreography, became our big “hit.” (Gotta put “hit” in quotes when you’re talking about modern dance choreography, because the term is a bit of a stretch. By “hit” I mean “the first piece I ever made any licensing money on” and by “any” I mean “basically none.”)

When I first attended Midwest back in 2003, I gave a CD of my music to Dick Floyd. Dick listened to it, liked “Strange Humors,” and when he saw me at CBDNA in New York last February, he asked me to considering re-working it for winds. My first instinct was that this probably couldn’t work, but then I realized that I’d thought the same thing about “Redline Tango,” decided I shouldn’t listen to myself, and accepted the commission from ABA.

So now I’m working on it, and it’s turning out to be rather spare. If you listen to the original, you’ll see that the energy and groove comes from the intimacy of it (it’s just 5 people, all closely-miked), and I wanted to maintain that. As a result, the scoring is light, loaded with solos over the djembe part, and the occasional choir section (with, say, the saxes playing over the djembe). I think it works well musically, but this is intended to be my first high school-level piece, and I’m worried that younger players are going to be annoyed at having to sit there and not play anything while the alto sax plays the tune.

I’m mainly concerned about the trumpets and the clarinets, who usually play continuously in band music (and, in my opinion, make music sound “bandy”), and I have them just sitting there for the first 100 measures. The bass clarinet gets two solos in that time (yes, I cued it), but having regular clarinets play too often made it sound mushy, and this piece is all about bite and groove.

If you’re curious, check out the original. I had only posted an excerpt in the past, but the entire piece is up there now, as well as the full score in PDF format. The wind version starts with an English horn solo, and when the tune repeats, the English horn is joined by an alto sax in unison. The djembe part will remain identical in the wind version.

The wind version — score and parts — is due at Baylor (who will premiere it at the ABA convention in March) in about 10 days, so I’d better get back to work!


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