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13 October 2016

'Vibe Rant' for Ensemble Offspring’s Kontiki Racket

Holly Harrison Image: Holly Harrison  

Composer and drummer Holly Harrison writes about her new work for Ensemble Offspring's Kontiki Racket microfestival in Sydney (12-13 November 2016), and her compositional process, involving a drumkit. Holly's work will be premiered in the opening concert on 12 November, together with works by fellow Australians Julia Reidy (also a world premiere) and Tristan Coelho, plus works by Mantovani and Xenakis.

See also: Kontiki Racket Concert 2 (12 November) and Concert 3 (13 November). Industry panel (13 November) will discuss the concept 'Australian Voice', and a 'speed-dating' session (13 November) will bring together emerging voices with new music leaders.

Vibe Rant acts as a sister piece to my earlier work, Frogstomp, composed for Ensemble Offspring for the inaugural Limelight Australian Composition Seminar last year. Written for flute/piccolo, bass clarinet, and quasi-drum kit percussion, Frogstomp was a groove-based work and amalgam of jazz, rock and hip-hop styles. Both pieces have been generously commissioned by Penny Le Couteur and Greg Dickson.

Vibe Rant, for flute/piccolo, bass clarinet/clarinet, and vibraphone, is in a similar vein, and shares connections with my percussion and piano duo Brake Dance, and the string and percussion piece FiddleSticks!. Together with Frogstomp, these works are a departure from the influence of Lewis Carroll which thematically ties together most of my other work. Instead, they focus on a particular instrument or sound, as the titles suggest. In Fiddlesticks!, it's strings and junk percussion, in Brake Dance, brake drum, and in the case of Frogstomp, a squeaky frog is played by the percussionist's left foot. Vibe Rant is driven by the vibraphone.

There is an element of Carrollian humour at play here too, revelling in the literal and double meanings of titles. Vibe Rant not only refers to the abbreviated form of vibraphone: 'vibes', but also 'rant', which originally comes from the Dutch word 'ranten': to talk nonsense. Of course, together these words form 'vibrant', which I feel is the overall mood of the piece.

Like its sister Frogstomp, Vibe Rant sets up a series of stylistic juxtapositions, creating a patchwork of styles that embrace influences from vernacular genres including jazz, pop, hip-hop, dance, rock, and metal. These are positioned across, against, and atop each other in both vertical and horizontal/linear ways, creating sound-blocks. The end result does not necessarily sound like these styles, though an important part of my process involves using genre parallels as a starting point, especially timbrally. For example; I imagined the upper-register clarinet solo as imitating Jimi Hendrix-esque screaming guitar lines and dive bombs, as well as snippets of flute and piccolo melodies, played and sung simultaneously to create a distorted effect, referencing the bluesy phrases of Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson. The palm-muted guitar rhythms typical of prog-rock breakdowns make an appearance in the vibraphone ostinati, and in conjuring up associations with dance music and hip-hop, I imagined the bass clarinet lines as a type of dirty synthesiser.

Vibe Rant is written with three main moods in mind. Early sound-blocks embrace rambunctious and cheeky lines, paired with pop and jazz harmonies, with some of the vibraphone phrases fleetingly paying homage to the tuned-percussion writing of Frank Zappa. This is pitted against glimpses of a lighter, more ethereal and, perhaps, 'cuter' sound-world, where the flute and vibes work together as a duet texture. A darker mood emerges in the second half, inspired by rock and metal elements, using dissonant harmonies, timbral distortion, rhythmic unisons and insistent ostinati. Once these three mood-blocks have been introduced, the piece flickers back and forth between them, continually interrupting each other and superimposing them across each other in varying combinations. The piece revels in continually masking which sound-block is which.

As a rock drummer, I tend to write in a way that is rhythmically focussed. Frogstomp is driven from the get-go by the quasi-kit part, where the kit rhythms act as a counterpoint to the melodic lines of the flute and clarinet throughout. In thinking about Vibe Rant as a sister piece, and having never written for vibraphone before, I approached the piece by thinking about how I could generate rhythmic energy from the vibes comparable to that of a drum kit. Part of my compositional process involves developing rhythms at the kit, initially born of improvisation. This is especially important timbrally, as I find I can create rhythms for multiple instruments (or sections) at once by assigning a limb to that particular player! This often gives way to interlocking and hocket-type patterns.

Thinking about the relationship between bass drum, snare, and hi-hat, and how alternating sticking creates new rhythms, I began to write figures for the vibraphone which took advantage of the difference in timbre between the low, middle, and high registers, using pitch leaps as a kind of rhythmic tool in an attempt to write a multi-voiced vibes part. It is not quite as literal as this, of course, but the lower notes corresponded to bass drum rhythms, middle notes to snare or toms (being the most resonant register of the vibes), and the highest notes to the hi-hat or cymbals. This type of process, although slow-going, is an important part of my writing style, particularly as I don't play a harmonic instrument. I play one-note-at-a-time instruments, trumpet and flute, and my doctoral thesis [at the University of Western Sydney] talks a little about how I feel my experience as a trumpeter and flutist shape my melodic lines and how these interact vertically and horizontally in my music.

Further links

Holly Harrison - AMC profile

Kontiki Racket microfestival (12-13 November) - details in the AMC Calendar

Ensemble Offspring: Kontiki Racket - information on the Ensemble Offspring website

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