A New Concerto—Double the Fun!

by Andrew Paul MacDonald ¦   March 14, 2019

Today I just finished writing a new double concerto for marimba, tabla and orchestra for Catherine Meunier, Shawn Mativetsky and the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra. It’s the thirteenth concerto I’ve composed to date and likely the first anyone has made for such a combination. Although I’ve written a number of pieces for marimba, this was my first time with the tabla and I must say that the learning curve was steep—I spent the first few months just researching the instrument’s technique and repertoire. But in the end I was better for it.

I had done likewise before. In 1998 I wrote a concerto for harp and gamelan orchestra for Erica Goodman and the Evergreen Club called The Eleusinian Mysteries. Writing for the harp came easily to me, but the gamelan required much investigation. During the research process I discovered wonderful music both traditional and new which informed my work significantly. For example, the intervals in the gamelan pelog scale are spaced differently from those in our Western system and so I had to reconcile this discrepancy with the harp. At first we tried retuning some of the harp strings to match the pelog, but in the end left them in the Western system. The resulting differences in intonation created a shimmer between the harp and gamelan which we all enjoyed very much. The restrictions within the pelog scale also influenced my melodic choices, as did the rhythms and layered ostinati of traditional gamelan music, all of which was absorbed into my personal language. Although the gamelan is of Indonesian origin, I believe that it gave a ritualistic quality to the work which was underscored through the use of modes and rhythm patterns found in ancient Greek music. The harp soloist is like a mystic Hierophant, or high priestess, spinning an intricate web of sound as she reveals the musical spirit of these secret eternal mysteries. You can hear some of this in the second movement, “Along the Sacred Way”, where the ritualistic elements are emphasized through the use of ostinati and chanting.

In preparation for the writing of this new concerto, I familiarized myself with the tabla by studying the pedagogical lessons of Pandit Sharda Sahai, researching the history of the instrument, workshopping my material with Shawn and listening to countless recordings by such masters as Zakir Hussain:

The new sound of my piece is the result of the effect of these influences on my musical language. The melodic and harmonic materials were formed from my filtered perception of melody in the traditional repertoire and from the timbre of the tabla itself. For example, the tabla’s dahina drum is tuned to D in this piece, so this becomes a significant pitch as the work unfolds. The rhythmic soundscape is important, too. It was generated from the many kaidas, tukras and thekas patterns which form the foundation of the tabla literature.

Of course rhythm was also heavily influenced by marimba technique and this both clashes with and compliments that of the tabla. Repetition figures and right-left alternating patterns, idiomatic to mallet percussion, interact frequently with intricate tabla rhythms. As well, certain intervals favoured by four-stick marimba players became important factors in determining the overall harmonic content. Some of this can be gleaned from my marimba duet from 2003 which I had composed for Catherine and D’Arcy Gray:

I’m looking forward to working with Catherine and Shawn as we enter the next stage of the project—the rehearsals!

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