Neil Welch - July 18th, 2010
This week I am presenting a chamber piece scored for six musicians entitled Sleeper. It is orchestrated to move between sections of written and freely improvised music, at times occurring simultaneously, though the piece is largely through- composed in scope. The instruments played include soprano, alto and tenor saxophones (played in rotation by two musicians), trombone, bass clarinet and two cellos.
This work was inspired by the torture and wrongful death of Abed Hamed Mowhoush, an Iraqi Major General under Saddam Hussein. This incident occurred in the Anbar province in Iraq, November of 2003. It was brought to my attention in a report on National Public Radio’s program Fresh Air in 2007. I should begin by stating that I in no way support the actions of Abed Hamed Mowhoush, nor am I in any position to demonize him in the wake of accusations I have little or no true knowledge about. This piece is written in dedication to the humanity inside each of us. It is inspired by the soldiers and their unspeakable actions, for my government and its moments of unbridled terror. Above all, it is written in hope that the darkest, most difficult moments of our lives may be met with love instead of hate, compassion instead of rage.
In 2003, actions permissible regarding insurgent interrogation, including the applicability of Geneva protection proved inconsistent. Many actions of soldiers and interrogators in these situations were often left to subjective interpretation. The information contained below was taken from a Human Rights First report entitled “Command’s Responsibility.” The article may be read at http://www.humanrightsfirst.info/pdf/06221-etn-hrf-dic-rep-web.pdf The circumstances surrounding Mowhoush’s death are taken from this article and are as follows:
Abed Hamed Mowhoush voluntarily surrendered himself to US forces in Iraq approximately one month before the capture of Sadam Hussein. Four of Mowhoush’s sons were in US custody, and Mowhoush gave himself on good faith his sons would be released, which did not occur. Chief Welshofer, an interrogator assigned to Mowhoush began his first sessions with 2 hours of direct questioning, but as the week went on his techniques began to change dramatically. Mowhoush was bound at the hands and taken before other prisoners to be slapped. A few days later he was moved to an abandoned railroad station called the “Blacksmith Hotel.” Here, a new team beat Mowhoush’s hands with sledgehammer handles, causing massive bruising and five broken ribs. The next day he was beaten repeatedly on the back of his arms and doused with water. His son Mohammed was brought in, and Mowhoush was led to believe his son had been fatally shot with the threat of his other sons to follow. On his final day, “Mowhoush was shoved head first into a sleeping bag, wrapped in electrical cord and rolled from his stomach to his back. Welshofer sat on Mowhoush’s chest and blocked his nose and mouth. It was at this point Mowhoush gave out, dying of asphyxia due to smothering and chest compression.”
Sleeper was inspired by this story and the cruelty of those in power put into impossibly difficult situations. In these moments, our character is our guide.
Musical devices in the piece:
This work utilizes a few core musical elements: a strong use of repetition, slowly elaborated harmony, 12 tone melody, quarter step motion and themed improvisation. The fulcrum of the work is a tone row, presented most often in its prime form and elaborated upon in retrograde, inversion, and retrograde inversion.
Sleeper begins with an extended choral, developed with a single held note occurring in the upper soprano register, and quartile harmony introduced beneath it over the course of several repetitions. After the introduction the primary tone row is quickly improvised and elaborated upon compositionally throughout the remainder of the piece. The work concludes with a choral orchestrated in contrast to the introduction with far denser harmony, the tone rows included as the melodic framework. The tone row in its prime form is as follows:
C B G# E C# Bb F G Eb A F# D
I am not a true practitioner of 12 tone music. At the heart of this style lays my love of the pure 12 tone melody. It was for this reason I chose to score the piece with the tone rows I feel most confidently represent the prime form. Other harmonic relationships surrounding the row do not follow the strict 12 tone format.
Musical inspiration and examples:
The introductory choral was inspired by the voice work of Meredith Monk. Her lucid, transparent vocal technique is so evocative. It is at once modern, but feels universal in its stylistic execution.
The mid portion of Sleeper uses rapid pulsations of sixteenth notes in odd meter and quarter tones. This was strongly inspired by Pierre Boulez’s work for 7 cellos.
Example: Pierre Boulez, Sur Incises (for seven cellos)
The improvisational models in Sleeper are intended to be an extension of my current solo saxophone work. This is done with dense single instrument polyphonic harmony. The implementation of this style is certainly influenced by Evan Parker’s new record, House Full of Floors. This ensemble achieves a percussive flow of thought and an amazing array of sound art. It is also in an acoustic setting.