Notes by Douglas Ovens
Like many musicians of my generation, I was attracted to music initially by Rock and Roll. The raw vitality of the music, the excitement, the fact that my mother and virtually everyone who was older hated it--all of these things made rock a powerfully attractive force. It was music that seemed to young people to be wholly their own with no debts owed to anyone (young people, like older people, often see what they want to--)
I don't do rock anymore, but my motivations for being a musician have never changed much. I was attracted to rock partly because it seemed a platform for experimentation, and that has always been my main interest as a musician--the experiment. It was only because I found a whole history of experimentation in the music of the 20th-century avant-garde that I stopped doing rock. The music of Bartok, Varese, Messiaen and Berio disclosed a world in which aural beauty was being redefined for our time. It seemed to me, as a young person stumbling on that music (by way of jazz guitar lessons), that a parallel universe existed of which I had been wholly ignorant.
It was 1973. I was twenty. And the discovery of this parallel universe was a humbling and liberating moment. Humbling because, as a musician of 20 years of age I thought I knew something, and liberating because the possibilities of which I was becoming aware turned out to be only the hints of what was possible.
This CD is a thoroughly personal document. It is made up of seven works that date from 1982 through 2003. They are called "improvisations" in spite of the fact that each of them exists as a written composition. I wrote most of them in a rhythmic language that is fairly explicit but often makes use of no barlines. Consequently, I have played them slightly differently in different periods. I relish the possibilities that exist in a given phrase and, when it is appropriate, resist deciding which is the "best" version and instead allow variable performances.
Improvisation #5 for Electronic Percussion Solo (1997) is a work for vibes and MalletKat, a MIDI controller for mallet percussionist. The kit is set up with the MalletKat above the vibes like a two-manual organ. A Proteus FX provides the synthesizer sounds.
Improvisation #4B (Music Box) (2002) This piece has taken the place of a solo marimba work that I am rewriting and which will eventually be Improvisation 8. Improvisation #4 is a "duet for one person." Marimba and vibes are set up as a two-keyboard instrument. Most of the time I am playing both at the same time. I discovered I very much liked the rich timbre of the two instruments sounding together.
Improvisation #3 for Solo Percussion (1988) was premiered at the University of Alabama. Chimes and vibes are combined with marimba and tom-tom gestures in an "inexorable" opening section. In this performance I have added a track of bowed vibes to the middle marimba solo. This is the most "improvisational" of the works in that gestures in the middle marimba solo are to be freely repeated.
Improvisation #1 for Solo Marimba (1982). I have always considered this piece to be my "opus 1." The rhythmic language of this piece is the first realization of an idea I think of as "organic rhythm." The rhythmic design of each individual moment flows directly from the melodic shape. Just as each melodic idea rapidly gives way to a different one, so too, does the rhythmic contour constantly change. The rhythms are consequently free, declamatory, aperiodic. The piece is alternately a "vocalise" or a rant.
Improvisation #2 for Solo Percussion (1985). Improvisation #2 continues the rhythmic ideas I had begun to develop in Improvisation #1. Trills slow down and merge into melodic lines. This is my first piece that requires that two mallet instruments be set up as a "super" keyboard. In this case, a marimba is set up on blocks above a vibraphone. The gestures move from one keyboard to another.
Improvisation #7 for Solo Marimba (From This Place Outward) (2000). A piece for solo marimba started this cycle but it took me a long time to return to writing for solo marimba. Improvisation #7 is rooted on the pitch A1. Each of four sections begin with reiterated A's, the place from which this piece goes out.
Improvisation #6 for Electronic Percussion and Tape (1998). Dubbed "jarring" by the Philadelphia Inquirer (much of my music is), Improvisation #6 makes use of samples of my own music for voice and instruments. These samples were used to create an originally improvised ground bass over which a live part is played on MalletKat.
Composer and percussionist Douglas Ovens has created over 60 works in media ranging from orchestral compositions to electronic works for dance. He has received commissions from the Allentown Symphony, the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra, the Asheville Symphony and various dance and theater companies. In 1996 he completed a work for vibes and wind ensemble that was premiered by Grammy award winning vibist, Gary Burton.
Ovens has had nearly 300 performances of his music in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Salt Lake City and other places throughout the United States. International performances have taken place in Berlin, Poland, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and in Canada and Japan. Professional ensembles that have performed his music include North/South Consonance (New York City), the Talujon Percussion Quartet (New York City), the Auros Ensemble (Boston), Lontano (London), the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and the York Contemporary Ensemble (Los Angeles).
Ovens' Moving Image for piano solo as performed by Max Lifchitz was released on the North/South Recordings label and his Play Us A Tune for soprano and orchestra is available on the Vienna Modern Masters label. Moving Image was described in the New York Times as a work of "special appeal--that has an almost conversational shape and pacing and some wonderful textural detail."
Ovens was in residence at the Akiyoshidai International Arts Village, Japan, the month of October, 1998 as one of four musicians from across the United States selected to live and work with four musicians from Japan as well as similar numbers of photographers and dancers from those two countries. This residency was supported by grants from the Japan Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation and many others.
Douglas Ovens is Professor of Music and chairman of the Music Department at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA.