Now is the Time—contemporary American music on WRTI-HD2 and online, Saturday nights at 9—ought to have theme music, I thought in the weeks leading up to our first broadcast on June 1st, 2008. I started looking through works of mine, as I did with the theme for Discoveries from the Fleisher Collection, to see if anything would fit.
I looked over everything that had survived ritual burning up to that point, and the only piece that came close was a curious Four Hymns for Four Guitars, written in, wow, 1985 for the amiable Philadelphia Guitar Quartet. Wonderful guys all, astute musicians, and very helpful when I was working on it.
They liked Four Hymns enough to have performed it at a number of concerts. Some of it I still like, these many years later, including the beginning of the third hymn, “No, Not One.” It’s an old gospel hymn, known from its opening lines, “There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus. No, not one! No, not one!”
I was trying out the manipulation of pitch aggregates, as I recall. No, I’m kidding. Nobody says, “manipulation of pitch aggregates.” No, I’m kidding. A lot of people say “manipulation of pitch aggregates,” all of them composers who have been to college, and I think for a month and a half I said it, but it means absolutely nothing—nothing more than “I was shoving notes around,” or (here’s a thought) “I was composing”—but some folks like to throw “aggregates” around, you bet, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
For me, I just liked how you could mix up a five-note scale in pretty much any order (many gospel tunes are constructed from five-note scales). You could then use that mix to accompany the tune, and if you slowed it all down, it sounded kind of pretty. For a while. In this piece, you can hear the tune in low, punctuated, held notes, too slow to recognize as the tune, but a cantus ﬁrmus with curlicues of arpeggios cascading off of it.
So that’s what I chose for the theme music. But the only recording I had was an old cassette tape of a live performance, and what with the hiss and the baby crying in the audience, I went back to the drawing board and now, après-1985 and with a computer and software and everything, renotated the beginning of the hymn and made a synthesized playback with, ooo, “classical guitar” sounds on it.
But it sounded fake and certainly not as good as four real guitars played by four real guitarists, so I started replacing, and adding, and editing instrument sounds. A weekend later I had a minute and change of 12-string and pedal steel guitars, pizzicato acoustic and Rickenbacker basses, long-decaying marimbas, and other whatnots: an entire orchestra of made-up sounds in pentatonic mode that had enough goofy sparkle for a theme but enough wallpaper to yak over.
It also was stylistically neutral enough, I thought, to serve as an adequate introduction to a show featuring all kinds of new music. I hope you like it, and if you get a chance to listen to the show (Saturday nights at 9, or did I say that already?), I hope you like that, too. I’m having fun putting it together, and thanks to WRTI for supporting contemporary American classical music!