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Jigsaw Zither

  • David M. Gordon (b.1976)
  • Sextet
  • 2012

“Jigsaw Zither” for solo berimbau player with five live or pre-recorded accompanying berimbau parts, is among the most unusual compositional projects that I have ever taken on. It was written at the request of Greg Beyer, who is perhaps the world’s only classical (in the sense of Euro-American classical) berimbau virtuoso, for performance with the Northern Illinois University Bau-House, a student berimbau ensemble of his founding. The berimbau is a Brazilian musical bow with a single metal wire, a fixed bridge made of rope or string, and a hollow resonating gourd. The wire is played with a thin wooden stick, and the player alters the pitch of the wire by pressing a small stone or coin against it. The player may also achieve a vibrato-like effect by rapidly moving the resonating gourd closer and further away from his or her body. Although the string bridge is tied securely in place during performance, it can be moved when the instrument is not in use, thus altering the tuning of the wire.

In “Jigsaw Zither” each berimbau is tuned differently, with the result being an exotic twelve-note scale that is rich in microtonal intervals unavailable in the familiar equal-tempered tuning of Western art music. The work itself is a passacaglia with a thirty-two-note melodic ostinato divided between the five accompanying parts. Above the ostinato, the soloist performs an array of intricate variations that eventually culminate in a frenetic, improvised cadenza. Although the melodic ostinato is present throughout most of the work, there are a number of extended “interruptions” in which the accompanying parts introduce new though closely-related melodic and rhythmic material. The title of the work is derived from both the berimbau’s organological classification and its specialized use in my piece. “Zither” refers to Hornbostel and Sachs’s categorization of the berimbau as a kind of bar zither, while “Jigsaw” alludes to the fact that the notes of the main melodic ostinato are distributed in a puzzle-like fashion among five different players.

The work is dedicated, with much gratitude, to Greg Beyer and the hard-working students who have helped bring it to life. – David M. Gordon

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