The Viper, His Famous Orchestra, his ukulele, his jug, his suitcase, and his liver all make their way to down to Lake Zurich, Illinois this Friday, Nov. 17, to offer up a pre-Thanksgiving cornucopia of musical nourishment to the students and families of the Lake Zurich Middle School North Orchestras.
This concert will inaugurate this school year’s edition of the Viper’s Composer-In-Residence tenure with LZOrk, with the students themselves participating in making some decisions about what pieces we’ll learn interactively and develop together over the course of the spring semester, based on what they hear and think they can work with this fall.
Of course, The Viper and His Famous Orchestra will revisit some of the pieces LZOrk has performed in the last couple of years as well — “Just That Good,” “Hotzeplotz Calls,” “Heartbreak For Beginners,” “The Monsters Are Coming” — with some very special guest appearances by past, present, and future orchestra students.
Anyone needing an introduction to the Viper or the Composer-In-Residence program could do worse than revisit this Q&A from the first year of the residence, titled “What Does The Viper Say?” And everyone else, we’ll see you on Friday!
Middle school denizens of the Northern territory of District 95, Lake of Zurich, United State of Illinois: The Viper comes in peace but he comes with washtub, jug, and, probably a cümbüş (don’t ask) in hand. Beyond that date, there be monsters. But fear not: we’re just that good.
I’m looking forward to my second annual virtual residence with the LZOrk-ers for your Spring 2017 concert. Mr. Broach and I have some fun and challenging music planned for all y’all, and I hope you’ll challenge us right back.
Here’s a glimpse at what we’ll be doing. And if you’d like a deeper dig into just what this Viperity is all about, you can read here about what last year’s students (which includes some of you!) asked about what to expect and what I wrote back, in a post called “What Does The Viper Say?”
“Just That Good”
The Intermezzo Orchestra will be working with a little trash-talking piece I wrote as the type of thing that should take five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. (Like Othello!) It’s about as simple as it gets — a twelve-bar blues in a ragtime/stride style — and our work with it should be a good example of the way most non-classical musicians learn and develop new music.
You’ll have a written template for the melody. But, truth be told, most of the “information” to be transmitted about this tune and its style is something you’ll have to learn by ear: you’ll hear me play the melody and “figure out how it goes” by playing it back and then memorizing it.
We’ll also try to work out ways, as a group, to produce bass lines and other accompanying parts and to introduce some development to this basic theme — including, if all goes as planned, a little “concerto mini-grosso” band-within-a-band bit for two washtub basses and jug. Whatever we end up doing, our performance will be a unique arrangement and orchestration of the piece — something that’s never been played quite the same way before, and won’t ever be played the same way again.
Here’s a “scratch track” version of the song as recorded by the group that Mr. Broach and I perform in together, The Viper & His Famous Orchestra. A scratch track is a rough-and-ready reference recording that a composer or a group makes in rehearsal — basically, so they can come back later and remind themselves what they figured out. This is faster than we’ll do it, but you’ll hear how this song works as a kind of conversation between all the performers.
“The Monsters Are Coming”
With the Chamber Orchestra, we’ll be working on a piece that has been described as “the worst song ever written” (it was described that way by me!) and one that, when performed before an audience of children, produced cries of “Liar!” (I had to explain to those kids that sometimes the truth hurts).
This is an example — or maybe even a parody of — a style of music that composers like Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass developed in the second half of the Twentieth Century under the rubric of “minimalism” (though, as we’ll talk about, their work echoed some parallel developments happening in popular music as well). The idea is that we take some super-basic piece of melodic material…
…and see just how little we can do with it and still end up with something that sounds like something that actually sounds like something!
The development might not be melodic — indeed, with this piece, the refusal to move away from the basic theme is really the joke — but instead might be in terms of the dynamics, or the sonority of the particular mix of instruments, or bowing/plucking techniques, or playing the melody backward (“retrograde”), upside-down (“inversion”), or, for the truly brave of heart, backwards AND upside-down (“retrograde inversion”), etc., and we will work this out in our rehearsals.
Truth is, even prior to the last century, there was a tradition of this kind of thing, whether we’re talking about monks chanting, or Indian ragas or Turkish taksims, or Beethoven’s meditation on a minor-third interval with a short-short-short-long rhythm in his 5th Symphony. But, trust me, Lake Zurich ain’t heard nothin’ like we’re going to lay on them with this.
Here’s a three-person version as performed by The Viper, Mr. Broach, and our colleague, Rob Henn. Now think of what we can do with a full orchestra!
The Monsters Are Coming, Var Gallery, Milwaukee, July 2016
the kind of music your great-great-great-grandparents warned your great-great-grandparents about