Calling Tunes: A Piece in Three Movements for Violin, Clarinet, Violoncello, and Piano

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2008-05-02

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Calling Tunes is a seventeen-minute piece in three movements for violin, clarinet, violoncello, and piano. The title refers to the common jam-session activity of "calling tunes", which represents an expression of common knowledge between musicians within an unrehearsed, improvisation-based ensemble. Each individual in the group shares a common repertory that is used as a backdrop to music-making -- a collection of not only melodies and chords, but a world of performance practices, music theory, and cultural memory that is drawn upon to create music without the need of prior rehearsal or planning. Calling Tunes strives to capture this unrehearsed, impromptu quality as if the piece had been created by an informal gathering of musicians extemporizing on some kind of shared musical language.

Each movement focuses on a single originating motive that is developed and transformed throughout like an improviser embellishing a familiar tune. The first movement, Montunos, is based on the piano vamp of Afro-Cuban salsa music, which is often characterized by off-the-beat syncopation and harmonization in thirds. The montuno that opens this movement combines these traditional qualities with metric irregularity and an ambiguous harmony that produces an otherworldly, out-of-tune quality.

The second movement, Canzone, acts as an introspective, lyrical interlude within the piece that begins as a chord progression without a melody. The long lines in each instrument combine to form three- and four-note chords that imply fleeting diatonic collections that slowly bleed into each other at a glacial pace. The real canzone is saved until the end where the cello channels the previous glimpses of tonality into a final coda-like cantabile statement.

The third movement, Variations on a Riff, takes the simple idea of a G major triad (first presented in the clarinet in mm. 34¬-44) and bends it through multiple permutations and harmonic contexts. This movement is framed by two fast sections in a galloping compound meter whose volatile, slightly unfinished texture sums up the attitude of the entire piece -- a composed musical narrative that seems to have been created in the moment out a subconscious musical language.

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