SHOFAR was originally commissioned in 1991 by the Westdeutscher Rundfunk's "Musik der Zeit" series as the opening concert of "The Diaspora Meets Israel" festival. For that occasion I composed a 45 minute work for a quintet of ram's horns (played by german conservatory students) and myself on ram's horn with live-electronic processing, a solo soprano clarinet and a broken accordian (performed by Michael Riessler and Arnold Dreyblatt respectively) and tape. The music drew from a wide spectrum of brash contrasting colors, gestures and events unified by an equally diverse quality of sampled and recorded sounds from Jewish life and nature in general, seemingly brought into being by each blow on my own Shofar. The piece, in effect, navigated somewhat dangerously between highly charged drama and minimalism, between cinema and blank canvas, the city and the desert. It was a piece of natural music theater.
Here, In SHOFAR II, a solo performance, I shift the focus from the orchestrational richness of the original version, to more essential musics in the form of complex dialogues between a single archaic ram's horn and a modern computer - between the Ur-telephone of our ancestors and today's sophisticated algorhythmic music systems. At the same time I retain the basic elements of the original version: its fundamental vocabulary of fragments of Hebraic singing styles from around the world, and other relevant natural sounds i.e. The Wailing Wall, lion roars, broken glass, ship horns etc. And I enhance the role of electronics to the level of equal partnership, and joint-mediator between 'then and now'.
The shofar itself is a defiant primitve trumpet, which while still used proudly in Jewish ritual, can only produce at best 3-5 notes of an imperfect harmonic series. And while I use it in a very unconventional way, I do let the horn "speak" for itself. At the same time it is used to "trigger" and number of specially composed musical structures stored in the computer, which in turn are made audible through three synthersizers and a sampler. The strucures themselves may range from simple simultaneously played random chords to huge overlapped clusters; from precisely looped sequences to hocketed rhythms in 8 or more parts and tempi; from stochastic melody-makers to endless variations on the harmonic series of a single tone, just to cite a few of these. The key to these structures is their open-endedness - each able to engender hundreds of variants at the click of a single key. Some may be just slightly more complex than the ones before it or may effect a radical departure from them. In most cases many different structural events are operating at the same time. This creates a music and a musical potential in the constant state of becoming - a state of perpetual evolution whose ultimate destination can never be exactly known - but one which is realized and guided largely through the spontaneous decisions of machine logic in conjunction with my own intuitive ones. In short, I blow into an ancient horn, my assistant and the computer both decide the musical outcome of that tone or gesture; I in turn listen and simultaneously decide the next move - the music comes to life and the process regenerates itself. So while the basic musical structures are given and the musical strategies well known and often planned, the real course of the music-making demands constant scrutiny, like a sea-going vessel, in order to be able to guide it safely and soundly into port.
While SHOFAR symbolically unites a mythical past with a tragic present, it is not a mere take on "A Brief History of Time" but an imaginary slice of the melody, harmony and rhythm that has happened along the way, here fused through music's illusive logic in each and every moment.
The computer programs were written in MAX by Chris Dobrian, Tim Walters and Georg Hajdu.
Shofar II, for ram's horn and electronics. Notes for performance
at Mills College, Oakland, November 1994.
Alvin Curran, shofar
Scot Gresham-Lancaster, computer
See also the liner notes for the 2013 Tzadik CD, Shofar Rags