Raw Liner Notes

Notes by James Rolfe

raW (2003)
raW was written by filtering J. S. Bach's Second Brandenburg Concerto through Bob Marley's War (Bach's first movement), Burning Spear's The Invasion (second movement), and John Philip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever (third movement). The constant running sixteenths of the Bach are by turns syncopated or silenced, leaving fleeting and usually unrecognizable echoes of reggae or march. MIDI files downloaded from the internet coupled with music software (Sibelius in this case) formed the basis of early drafts of this work. From them, I made templates, which I then edited over the course of many drafts, as might an artist who takes a photograph and alters it by hand: drawing, scratching, colouring, erasing. raW was written during the buildup to the American invasion of Iraq, but it was only afterwards that I noticed the connection to the "filtering" pieces' titles. raW was commissioned and premiered by Ergo Concerts (Barbara Croall, Artistic Director) and written with the assistance of a grant from The Toronto Arts Council. It was awarded the 2006 Jules Léger Prize for Chamber Music.

Simon & Garfunkel & the Prophets of Rage (1993)
This is a hostile merger between two songs: a sweet, pretty Simon & Garfunkel ballad, and an angry, in-yourface Public Enemy rap number. All players share the strong, choked, bitten-off notes reminiscent of the samples used in rap; their slowing-down structure is transparent. Simultaneously, the piano plays a simple, wistful tune filtered randomly from 159 slightly different nine-note chords derived from the bass line of the ballad. The piece is an allergic reaction to the drugs peddled by Simon & Garfunkel and other pop balladeers, which were happily swallowed whole by the composer at an impressionable age (29). The anger of Public Enemy illuminates the individual's fear, loneliness, isolation and powerlessness inherent in our competitive, capitalist society, which the hazy amnesia of sweet, seductive, corporately-produced-and-distributed ballads tries not to cure, but to obscure. Simon & Garfunkel & The Prophets of Rage was commissioned by Continuum Contemporary Music, with the assistance of The Ontario Arts Council.

Drop (1999)
Drop is haunted by ghosts of violin sonatas past, ghosts whose desires are sometimes indulged, but more often frustrated. It was commissioned with the assistance of The Ontario Arts Council by the Sabat-Clarke Duo, who premiered it in Toronto in January 1999.

Revenge! Revenge!! Revenge!!! (1995)
Revenge! Revenge!! Revenge!!! begins with the thinnest of musical wafers and stretches it thinner and thinner, using slowly evolving, repetitive structures. Dissonance builds between the forward motion of predictably linear changes in pitch and rhythm, and the halting way in which these changes occur. This piece is a kind of sequel to Devilled Swan, which was commissioned by my former composition teacher John Beckwith as part of his 1994 Toronto Arts Award, and premiered by Arraymusic. Both pieces feature materials he advised us undergrads to use with caution: chromatic scales, octaves, etc. Breaking these taboos was so exciting that I needed two pieces to do a proper job. To be fair, John doesn't recall issuing any such prohibitions. Perhaps I needed to imagine them in order to summon up the courage to break them. Certainly his teaching made a lasting impression; and despite their teasing façades, both pieces are dedicated to him with respect and affection. The title quotes the whisky-maddened and thirsty Captain Haddock after his flask is shattered by a stray bullet during a desert skirmish in "The Adventure of the Crab with the Golden Claws", one of Hergé's Tintin comic books. Revenge! Revenge!! Revenge!!! was premiered by the Composers Ensemble of Princeton in March 1996, and commissioned with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts.

Freddy's Dead (2004)
Freddy's Dead is based on J. S. Bach's theme from his Musikalisches Opfer. It shares some of his construction methods too, composerly tricks like inversion, retrograde, retrograde inversion, etc. These techniques were resurrected by the serialists, notably Schoenberg, upon whose death the fun-loving post-serialist Boulez remarked that "Schoenberg is dead". Most of this piece is derived from the third movement of the Musical Offering's Trio Sonata, which has been sped up several times, squeezed into downbeats (bass clef) or offbeats (treble), and otherwise mutilated, while at the same time a very slow version of the theme cycles alongside, with all intervals rising. This pair of ideas-short notes fast and jumpy, long notes slow and steady-works its dogged way through the instruments, with a few brief respites, until it's about time for a coda. Freddy's Dead was written for Soundstreams, and is dedicated with affection and respect to its Artistic Director, Lawrence Cherney.

Devilled Swan (1995)
Devilled Swan was commissioned by John Beckwith, a former professor of mine at the University of Toronto, on the event of his receipt of the Toronto Arts Award for music in 1994 from the Arts Foundation of Greater Toronto. It was premiered by Arraymusic on June 27, 1995. Devilled Swan is based on the late 18th-century hymn tune China, by Timothy Swan, a highly esteemed American hymnodist who also had a reputation for hard living. China was immensely popular throughout most of the 19th century, especially at funerals, but it virtually disappeared from use thereafter. It is in recognition of Professor Beckwith's devotion to hymn scholarship that I use it, or rather abuse it. Swan's quirky, leaping melody is progressively squashed flatter and flatter, and the chorale's inner voices become unrecognizably chromatic, while the rhythmically lively sections of the opening collapse into stasis. It is a kind of musical vivisection of the hymn. In part, this is a reaction against the text, which tells us not to mourn the dead, but rather to envy their extraterrestrial travels. It's also a cheeky salute to my erstwhile teacher, using the same musical materials- octaves, chromatic scales, monotonously regular durations-which John urged us students to handle only with the utmost care.

Fêtes de la Faim (1991)
Fêtes de la Faim was written for the 1991 Festival des Voix Nouvelles, Abbaye de Royaumont, France, where it was premiered by L'Ensemble Contrechamps de Genève. The words are from the French poet Arthur Rimbaud's poem of the same name, written ca. 1871.

Squeeze (1997)
Squeeze is march music. It marches through the J. S. Bach chorale Jesus meine zuversicht, back and forth, in tight and furious formation. The piano is the exception, a spectator at the proceedings, preferring silence, or an occasional dry comment. Yet its taciturn asides eventually subdue the march, which becomes soggy, and never quite recovers its step. Squeeze was written in 1996 for The Nash Ensemble of London, which premiered it at Princeton, New Jersey in 1997.