February 2010: Conversation with Composer, David Claman

In many ways the duo “Like This” for ‘cellist Susannah Chapman and violinist Cal Wiersma of the Cygnus Ensemble, is a modest piece. It is not very long and utilizes neither orhestrational nor technical fireworks. Like other recent pieces of mine, it makes little or no use of what are known as “extended techniques”; techniques which have been staples of contemporary composition for nearly a century such as string harmonics, sul ponticello bowing, scordatura, snap pizzicatti, and so on. Composers, you know the drill. There are, however, a number of ideas and techniques that I find interesting and important and would like to share.

As a composer, I’ve noticed that seemingly disparate sounds and ideas can become lodged in my head for years, never letting me go. In my first music history class years ago, we studied a stunning piece called “O Jerusalem” by the Abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) whose music was just then beginning to gain wider attention. One of the things that struck me was the form of the piece, a medieval sequence, which went roughly AA’ BB’ CC’ DD’ EE’ etc. The “A section” never came back! In my own compositions, the idea of return has never held a great deal of interest. I like pieces that go someplace and then keep on going. Others have called this “chain form”. There are a number of ways to create such a chain and “Like This” uses something which may strike some as shockingly traditional: it modulates through the circle of fifths. Ok, I said it. And yet it does so in ways that are not traditional and which are hopefully both subtle and surprising.

The piece uses a time signature of 9/8 which has a refreshingly continuous feel to it. Years ago I heard of piece of Irish traditional music in 9/8, known as a slip-jig (a more standard jig is usually in 6/8). The memory of this tune has stayed with me for all these years. The texture of this duo also calls upon another decades-old musical experience. Like many composers, I keep one ear cocked towards popular music, where interesting musical things are often happening. In the mid-1980s the British band “Tears for Fears” released a song hilariously (or frighteningly) entitled “Everybody Wants to Rule The World.” The song was quite quirky rhythmically and yet very catchy and enormously popular. It features an even quirkier guitar solo which sounds almost mbira-like in its texture (mbira is the so-called thumb piano from Southern Africa). I attempted to capture some of the feel and texture of this solo for Cal and Susannah.

The piece’s title looks back in time too. In the late 1970s there was an evocative expression and gesture which young people used for a year or so. While discussing a close friend, someone they were inseparable from, people might say, “We’re like this!” while holding out one hand with their index and middle fingers extended and pressed together as a single unit. I found this a delightful expression of closeness and was disappointed when it fell into disuse. In this piece, the “two characters”, violin and ‘cello, are similarly close rhythmically and melodically with the aim of suggesting a “melded” sound rather then two independent lines.

Perhaps my next pieces will look to the future.