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Sunday
Sep302012

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

The Seven Wonders
of the Ancient World

a concerto for Radio Drum-performed Disklavier and an ensemble of plucked strings and percussion

Duration: 70'
1996

Instrumentation: Radio Drum-performed Disklavier grand piano, mandolin, guitar, harp, harpsichord, harmonium, double bass, and two percussion.

"The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World" is a piano concerto performed by a percussionist. It is the premier work for a new hybrid acoustic instrument, the "Radio-Drum-driven Disklavier," which allows the gestural vocabulary of a percussionist to speak with the voice of an acoustic grand piano. The sound of this new instrument is massive and grand, even monumental, giving a new sense to the word "pianistic", and is further extended by a unique ensemble of acoustic plucked string and percussion instruments. All sound is entirely acoustic and performed as it would be in a concert setting--there are no loudspeakers, electronic sound or over-dubbing.

Commissioned by a National Endowment for the Arts Collaborative Fellowship, it involved a collaboration between composer David A. Jaffe and percussionist Andrew Schloss. The two worked as Resident Artists at the Banff Centre for the Arts in 1992-1993, where they developed the new instrument and refined the solo part. The work was released on CD in October, 1996 on the Well-Tempered productions label. The premiere live performance was January 20, 1998 by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players at the Yerba Buena Theatre in San Francisco. (Review.)

Click here to purchase The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World on iTunes

To obtain performance materials, please contact Terra Non Firma Press


Video

Andrew Schloss demonstrates a suite of cadenzas from "The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World"

Click here for Soledad O'Brien interview, focusing on "The Seven Wonders...", the Radio Drum, and other computer music technology.

Program Notes

"I have gazed on the walls of impregnable Babylon, along which chariots may race, and on the Zeus by the banks of the Alphaeus. I have seen the Hanging Gardens and the Colossus of Helios, the great man-made mountains of the lofty pyramids, and the gigantic tomb of Mausolus. But when I saw the sacred house of Artemis that towers to the clouds, the others were placed in the shade, for the sun himself has never looked upon its equal outside Olympus." --Antipater; Greece, 130 B.C.

Two statues, a temple, a roof-top garden, two tombs and a lighthouse. We can only guess at the effect this extraordinary collection of monuments must have had on the people of the time, as all but the Pyramids were destroyed, either by Nature or at the hands of human marauders. Taken as a whole, they reveal a crosshatch of parallels and oppositions: Two deal with death--the Pyramids and the Mausoleum. The Hanging Gardens glorify cultivated nature, while Artemis is the goddess of wilderness and wild animals. The two statues depict the heavens--Zeus, the god of thunder and rain; and the sun god of the Colossus of Rhodes.

How can the essence of these monuments be conveyed in music? In searching for an answer, I felt a need to push beyond the technological limits of conventional musical instruments, much the way the Wonders themselves challenged the practical constraints of their day. Although I could have used electronic sound, its disembodied quality seemed singularly inappropriate. Instead, I chose to collaborate with Andrew Schloss to create a new purely-acoustic musical instrument and found myself nourished by the wonderful creative tension that emerges when the impulse to transcend known boundaries is forced to confront the laws of physics. This sense of dynamic balance offers, perhaps, a glimpse into the inspiration of those who created the great Wonders of the past. --David A. Jaffe; Berkeley, California; 1996

The movements of The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World:

I. The Great Pyramid (Giza, Egypt; 3000 B.C.) "Man fears time. But time fears the Pyramids." The music is built of ponderous massive blocks of sound, each comprising all 88 notes of the piano. The Radio-Drum soloist performs the correlation, dynamics, density and speed of this material. The movement ends in a mist of dead kings and forgotten slaves.

II. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon (Babylon, Iraq; 689 B.C.), built by the king Nebuchadnezzar for one of his wives in hopes of quieting her pining for her homeland, inspired this music suspended on a simple plaintive melody, ornamented and floating between harmonic and canonic textures. A more-animated middle section allows the Radio-Drum soloist to "draw" ornate arpeggios by passing a mallet above the surface of his instrument.

III. The Statue of Zeus in the Great Temple of the Sacred Grove (Olympia, Greece; 437 B.C.) With flesh of ivory, robe of gold, and throne of jewels, Pheidias' statue inspired Epictetus to write: "Go see it, for it would be a misfortune to have died without doing so!" The music proceeds deliberately with heavy pulsations at various conflicting tempi, each suggesting giant footsteps. The Radio-Drum cadenza is composed of multiple pulsations, in which a pulse at one tempo transforms into that of another. Zeus' penchant for thunder can be heard in the piano's low trills that close the movement.

IV. The Colossus of Rhodes (Rhodes, Greece; 280 B.C.) invokes the giant bronze statue of the Sun God, that stood with feet bestriding the harbor, ships sailing beneath. Focus shifts cyclically between tight synchronization and soft impressionistic textures, parallelling the arch formed by the legs of the Colossus. The movement opens with shimmering high trills, suggesting sunlight dancing on water, and progresses through a series of huge melodic arches. After an extended cadenza, in which the Radio-Drum soloist controls speed and dynamics of twelve simultaneous independent trills, the texture thins to a single trill, slows to a steady pulsation and transforms into a wild hammered dulcimer tune, improvised by the Radio-Drum soloist over a string-band accompaniment. This finally diverges into chaos over a trilling statement of the "arch" melody, leading to the final extended marimba solo.

V. The Temple of Artemis, the Mother Goddess (Ephesus, Turkey; 360 B.C.) Artemis, known also as Dianna, was the most revered and powerful goddess of Asia. Her sacred house at Ephasus inspired Philon to write, some 300 years later, "He who has laid eyes on it once will be convinced that the world of the immortal gods has moved from the heaven to earth." The music serves as the climactic center-piece of the entire work, and is an unbridled ecstatic celebration of this goddess of wild animals to the Greeks, and of all Nature and motherhood to peoples farther East. It depicts a gradually-coalescing religious procession, focused on the carrying of the cult statue, and suggests the collisions of cultural influences that resulted as such pilgrims encountered one another, while migrating West. The musical cultural references are draw from around the world, ranging from jazz to popular music to folk musics from Ireland, Mexico, Spain and the American Appalachians, suggesting the vastness of Artemis' influence and the rapidly-changing cosmology of the time.

VI. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (Halicarnassus, Turkey; 353 B.C.) When Mausolus of Caria died, his wife Artemesia's grief was such that she drank his ground-up ashes in wine, then built him a monument beyond immagination. The music evokes a formal timelessness and stillness, interrupted by an impassioned bass solo railing against the cruelty of mortality. The movement closes with a series of scale-like passages that ascend forever, arriving nowhere. The Radio-Drum soloist conducts these textures, controlling their balance, direction, centroid, and ultimately their fragmentation and dissolution.

VII. The Pharos of Alexandria (Alexandria, Egypt; 270 B.C.) serves as a coda to the entire work. Recalling themes and gestures from all the other movements, it proceeds with an alert energy. Like the ancient towering light-house beacon, lighting the night of Alexandria with its fires, the Seven Wonders shine through the ages as signs of the creative spirit of Humankind.


The Drum-Piano--a New Hybrid Instrument

This work is composed for a new acoustic instrument that maps the gestural language of a percussionist to the physical sound-production mechanism of a piano. This hybridization is made possible by combining a "virtual instrument", the Boie-Mathews Radio-Drum, with a remote-control acoustic piano, the Yamaha Disklavier Grand piano, linked by a computer to create the magical effect of "tele-presence". This hybrid instrument allows for a new kind of piano music, in which the gestures and idioms of percussion music--jazz, African, Cuban music, etc.--are grafted onto the piano, with its own deep and rich cultural contexts and associations ranging from European concert music to jazz.

The Radio-Drum serves as the percussive controller for the Drum-Piano. It uses low frequency radio signals to enable a computer to track the percussionist's motions of two mallets as he freely moves them in three-dimensional space. A computer program then interprets the trajectories of the mallets to perform whatever function the composer has programmed. For additional control, a set of 16 MIDI organ foot-pedals are used by the percussionist to select different mappings of the Drum, as well as to enable/disable various functions. The Drum was built by Robert Boie at AT&T Bell Labs and refined for use in a percussive context by Andrew Schloss.

The Yamaha Disklavier forms the other half of the hybrid Drum-Piano. A successor to the old player pianos, it is an acoustic piano that can "play itself". However, unlike a player piano, the Disklavier can "listen" to commands from a remote instrument that direct it to play or release individual piano keys and pedals. In the Drum-Piano hybrid, it receives this information from the Radio-Drum, as interpreted by a Macintosh computer running special software written by Schloss and Jaffe.

Music written for the Drum-Piano sounds unlike any other piano music because it is based on a different set of constraints. The Drum-Piano shares many characteristics of an acoustic drum, such as its rapid gestural vocabulary, and many characteristics of a conventionally-played piano, such as its decay and timbre. Yet, the composer is freed from the polyphonic limitations of conventional percussion instruments, as well as from the limitations of the geometry of the pianist's hand. Nevertheless, the Drum-Piano remains a mechanical instrument bound by certain physical realities; for example, a single note can be repeated only so fast, as it takes some time for the hammer and key to return to their original position after playing a note. Working within these constraints can actually be an inspiring process; often a limitation in one area suggests exciting possibilities with a slight modification of the initial conception. Furthermore, by using quasi-improvisational scenarios for the Radio-Drum, the composer is afforded sufficient influence over musical materials, while simultaneously allowing the performer freedom to realize the potential of his instrument. The composer's role is transformed from that of specifying what will be played, to circumscribing what can be played.