Sonic Evolution

For this orchestral work inspired by the Seattle-based jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, Portuguese composer Luís Tinoco (b. 1969) engaged in a bit of wordplay. His title, FrisLand, is the name of an imaginary island that appeared on most maps of the north Atlantic Ocean for a full century after it was placed there in 1558 by Nicolo Zeno, a member of an esteemed Italian family of cartographers.

Tinoco describes his composition as “an imaginary voyage through an (also imaginary) sound-world inspired by Frisell’s music.” After listening extensively to Frisell’s compositions and improvisations, Tinoco began compiling fragments — or, as he dubbed them, “friselprints” — that served as source material for his orchestral work. “Although there is some quotation in the score,” Tinoco writes, “the music does not aim to do any kind of pastiche, nor to make a ‘Frisell-like’ score as if he himself would be writing for the orchestra. It follows my own language, although as if visiting this imaginary land of Bill’s soundscapes.”

FrisLand begins with a slow chaconne (a very old musical form based on a repeated ground bass), perhaps evoking the studious mapmakers of the 16th and 17th centuries. Spatial awareness develops as a central aspect of the music, as in the stuttering gestures that circulate around the winds and the brass. Some of Tinoco’s “friselprints” lend the music a bluesy color in line with Frisell’s own tendencies, such as a melodic pattern based on a scale with a flattened seventh tone, a quintessential “blue” note.

Gabriel Prokofiev (b. 1975), the grandson of Sergey Prokofiev, came to his career as a composer through an unconventional path. He worked as a producer of hip-hop and electronic albums, and in 2004 he founded Nonclassical, a record label and club-night presenter in London. Prokofiev’s keen ear for hip-hop comes through in Dial 1-900 Mix-A-Lot, written with the aim “to really get inside the musical mind of Sir Mix-A-Lot; to understand how his rhythms, textures, sounds and harmonies work, and then to create a contemporary orchestral composition that is true to the music of Sir Mix-A-Lot.”

Prokofiev describes the score “as orchestral fantasy that evolved out of the wildest musical elements of Sir Mix-A-Lot,” including references to lines in the songs “Posse on Broadway” and “Baby Got Back.” A recurring four-note motive, for instance, traces the rhythm of the opening phrase from “Baby Got Back”: “I like big butts.” (The title Dial 1-900 Mix-A-Lot also comes from a verse of that song in which ladies of a certain proportion are invited to call the number.) The music proceeds to an off-kilter, 5/4 groove that cycles through a wide array of percussion sounds. As Prokofiev explains, “We can imagine that Mix-A-Lot’s drum machine gets overloaded after this, as the tempo accelerates into mayhem.”

Sir Mix-A-Lot (b. 1963), born in Seattle as Anthony Ray, was a hip-hop pioneer in a city better known for grunge and flannel. His breakout hit from 1987, “Posse on Broadway,” was a celebration of Seattle street life, from the historical African American neighborhood of the Central District to the late-night antics on Broadway in Capitol Hill. Mix-A-Lot achieved international fame (and notoriety) with the 1992 hit “Baby Got Back,” an uproarious and provocative paean to voluptuous women, which won a Grammy Award for Best Rap Solo Performance and sold more than two million copies.

In preparing versions of these songs for the Seattle Symphony, composer Gabriel Prokofiev “made these orchestrations as faithful to Mix-A-Lot’s original electronic arrangements as possible.” To re-create Mix-A-Lot’s distinctive sound, Prokofiev introduced “some unusual playing techniques” as well as “several customized percussion instruments, including an acoustic ‘scratcher’ (made by scratching a credit card against serrated plastic), a ‘jackdaw’ (a friction drum that creates a frog-like noise), and various drums with chains and cymbals on them to create distorted drum and clap effects.”

Prokofiev cites Sir Mix-A-Lot’s interest in electronic music, such as the German band Kraftwerk, as the source of his “tougher, more minimal and metronomic feel.” Mix-A-Lot “personally programs all his beats with a Roland 808 drum machine,” Prokofiev explains, “and it is his relentless, detail-laden beats which make him so unique.”

Du Yun (b. 1977), a Chinese composer now based in New York City, acknowledges that she is “captivated” by soul legend and onetime Seattle resident Ray Charles, in all his “incarnations, his breaks, his many before-lifes.” Her new orchestral work, Hundred Heads, combines the inspiration of Ray Charles with a creature from Buddhist lore. As Jorge Luis Borges recounts in The Book of Imaginary Beings, the Hundred-Heads is “an enormous fish, with one head a monkey’s, another a dog’s, another a horse’s, another a fox’s, another a pig’s, another a tiger’s, and so on, to the number of one hundred.” This monstrosity was the reincarnation of a know-it-all monk named Kapila; as Borges tells it, “Sometimes his companions would make mistakes, at which Kapila would call them ‘monkey-head,’ ‘dog-head,’ etc. When he died, the karma of that accumulated invective made him come back to life as a sea monster, floundering under the weight of all the heads he had wished upon his companions.”

Du Yun sees Ray Charles as “the echo of that spirit” of the Hundred-Heads. Her music incorporates traces of Charles’ most famous cover song, “Georgia on My Mind,” as well as one of his original songs, “Hard Times (No One Knows Better than I).” These borrowings churn within a sound-world of subtle gestures, fragile effects and undefined pitches, transmuted and submerged like the Hundred-Heads. In a note in the score, Du Yun writes, “I often wonder about our own musical languages. What constitutes that of others, when does such become our own? When an assimilation evolves to an assault. When the boundary of the divide stops.”

© Aaron Grad

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