H.O.R.S.E.

Premiere: 11 December 2015 at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT

Duration: ca. 5-10′

Instrumentation: open

Performance Note: H.O.R.S.E. is the result of a commission from Nate Gworek, who asked me to write a concept piece using non-traditional notation and open instrumentation.

Having never composed a serious score along such parameters, I was initially thrown for something of a loop. Shortly after Nate broached the idea for the piece, though, I found myself watching the 2015 NBA Finals. As a kid growing up outside Chicago in the late-1980s and throughout the ‘90s, I had avidly followed the ups and downs of Michael Jordan and Co. and, as a teenager, developed a great love for basketball. Aside from the games, one of my indelible basketball memories from around 1992 or ’93 was a commercial Jordan and Larry Bird made for McDonald’s that involved the game of H.O.R.S.E. and a series of increasingly ludicrous shots by each (including one from the top of the Sears Tower). Watching the 2015 Finals and the not-inconsiderable acrobatics of Stephen Curry, LeBron James, and others, I found myself again thinking about that ad and the game, which, when applied to Nate’s injunction for a “piece built around an idea [you] come up with one day,” seemed suddenly to have musical possibilities.

So my own H.O.R.S.E. takes the idea of the basketball game – one player taking and making a “challenge shot,” the other copying it or, if they miss, coming up with one of their own – and applied it to a composition for two percussionists. The score calls for considerable freedom and improvisation, though its broad parameters are notated. It falls into five movements, the odd numbered ones of which are sets of variations on a given theme. Between these variations comes a pair of interludes, the first for drums and the second for bass drum and gongs.

I imagine that no two performances will be quite alike: much of the musical content (including pitch, rhythm, sometimes dynamics, and instrumentation) is left to the discretion of the performers. The challenge – which I’m sure the best percussionists are up to – is to make something satisfying of the musical outline they’ve been given. As a composer, it’s a bit nerve-wracking to leave so many elements, as it were, to chance; but therein lies the adventure and sense of fun of this experiment.