Motet on Doo-Dah
alto flute and string bass

Robert Morris

Program Notes

From 1972 through 1976 I spent most of my creative energies exploring the concept of acculturation in music. This resulted in a trilogy of works, the first of which is an electronic composition, Thunders of Spring over Distant Mountains, based on seven pieces of Southeast Asian music. In Different Voices, an hour-long composition for five wind ensembles (premiered at Yale on February 28, 1976), forms the last work of the series.

The centerpiece is a collection of five diverse compositions, each dealing with the interaction of clearly defined but culturally different musical styles. Motet on Doo-dah is a member of this portion of the trilogy and combines at least four different style components. The composition is an isorhythmic motet in the manner of certain French compositions of the fourteenth century. Its cantus firmus is Stephen Foster's "Camptown Races." Because of the nature of the tune, it was possible to develop a quasi-twelve-tone structure for the piece. The resulting polyphonic web is embellished to provide direct reference to that body of Korean court music known as Ah-Ak ("refined music"). To get at the sound of the Korean court ensemble, with its flutes, bells, stone slabs, and drums, it was necessary to use many of the new instrumental techniques that are being developed by many Western composers and performers. Listening to the long sustained tones in the alto flute, one can hear "Camptown Races" ornamented and stretched out over the whole piece. The other instruments also play phrases of the tune or its mirror inversion.

To some listeners, the combination of these elements may appear to refer to some less than sanguine cultural interactions. From a more positive point of view however the piece celebrates the fecundity of our pluralistic age.

As with many new works involving the extension of traditional playing techniques, Motet on Doo-dah was created for specific performers, flutist Marjorie Shansky and bassist Salvatore Macchia, both one-time colleagues of mine at Yale. The range of new techniques is considerable. The flutist is required to produce glissandos and microtonal intervals, modulate vibrato within defined limits sing while playing, and fluttertongue. The bassist as well is called on to produce a variety of vibrato types, glissandos, and microtonal intervals. Extensions of the piano, a more limited instrument with regard to possibilities for pitch modification, occur mainly in the timbral domain, the player being required to stop, damp, and pluck strings in addition to playing on the keyboard. S/he, too, at times sings.

Motet on Doo-Dah is recorded by Harvey Sollberger, Donald Palma, and Daniel Schulman on the New World compact disc, 80541-2.