Busting out the old warhorse

Some friends of mine and I were talking about working up my favorite piece of chamber music, ever: Spinoff, by Charles Wuorinen.

This piece is a beast. Listen to this excerpt from Wuorinen’s site to get a flavor of what we’re dealing with here. It’s head-banging rock and roll for classical musicians.

I played this something like 11 or 12 years ago back at NEC. We spent three months on rehearsing it, crying over it, and swearing at it. It was so fun.

So anyway, we’re just talking about it. As in, should we get ourselves into this sort of thing. Flirting with the idea. It is hard to find musicians that are into something like this, who are willing to put in the time, and who are skilled enough to be able to execute it. But it was fun picking up my old score and hacking away at some of the passages. The piece has a very tricky meter system ��� just a quick glance at page 1 shows that each measure has a new change in meter: 5/4, 9/4, 10/4, 4/4, 7/4, 11/4, 7/4, and that’s just the first seven measures. Hey, no big deal, the measures divided by 8th and 16th notes don’t show up until later. Oh, wait a minute – the subdivisions of measure three go 11/16, 6/4, 9/16. Nevermind.

The bass part alone has the additional challenge of skipping between bass, tenor, and treble clefs, and utilizing pretty much the entire range of the traditional modern double bass. Thankfully, Wuorinen did not write anything physically impossible to play or that would require at best the use of one’s forehead or big toe to achieve. The chords all have doable stretches with the left hand, or make available use of open strings. Overall I’d say a well-orchestrated piece for the double bass.

The nice thing about this piece, and much of Wuorinen’s work, is that it leverages traditional western classical music notation. Nothing funky like circular staves, pyramid beams, random sound effects, or tape recordings of humpback whales. There is excruciating attention to detail in the notation, and I as a musician I truly appreciate this.

But I’m making too much of a big deal about the complexities of the piece. The real deal here is this is an awesome piece. The 16th notes really chug ahead and it sounds more like something you’d hear on the streets of Greenwich Village or in a dark, smoky beatnick dive than in some prestigious concert hall. The piece rocks.

One thought on “Busting out the old warhorse”

  1. A very nice post about a monster of a piece! I have the score in a drawer somewhere too, quietly waiting for me to develop the chops and the cajones to bust it out. Oh yeah, I’ll also need some kick-ass fiddle and conga drum players. “Head-banging rock and roll for classical musicians” – my sentiments exactly!

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