for gyil and fixed media
Composer: Robert McClure
“Divide by Five is a visual and auditory overload that leaves the viewer with a high that is difficult to shake.”
– Adam Castañeda, Houston Dance Source
The Integrated Elements series features solo instruments and pre-recorded sound. The aim of this series is to use the sounds created by instruments, electronically produced sounds, and the sounds made by the human voice or mouth to create an integrated sound world.
Integrated Elements No. 3 “Divide by Five” was commissioned by Kyle Maxwell-Doherty. Kyle has taken several trips to Ghana to study African drumming, dance, and gyil playing with the famed master xylophonist, Bernard Woma. Knowing that there is a well established gyil tradition, I wanted to create a new context for the gyil as opposed to writing more traditional melodies with electronic accompaniment.
The gyil is a fourteen note, pitched, wooden percussion instrument. It is tuned to a pentatonic scale. Thus, the instrument contains two full octaves and a partial octave. It was this idea that lead me to the title, Divide by Five. Underneath the wooden bars of the gyil are suspended, hollowed out gourds that act as resonators. Each gourd contains small holes in its body that are covered with paper. Air forced into the gourds by striking the bars is pushed through the paper which gives the instrument a buzzing sound. This is an odd instrument, from the western perspective, because by definition, its purest sound contains distortion. I took this idea of distortion and applied it to the electronic elements.
The fixed media contains five categories of sounds. Sounds from the instrument itself (shaking the gourds, rubbing the bars, ascending and descending glissandi), electronically produced sounds, sounds from my voice, a series of notes from a prepared piano, and various sounds from the piano itself (knocking on the body, letting the lid drop, and sounding all 88 keys at once). The prepared piano acts as a counterpart to the gyil due to both the inherent distortion in the pure form of the sound and the tuning abnormalities. Many gyils are tuned differently because they are made by different people. There is no such thing as equal temperament in the gyil making community. To make sure this piece has a life beyond the premier performance I made sure not have any specific tonal references to any gyil or any specific tones for that matter. All of the pitches heard in this piece are “out of tune” to accommodate for multiple gyils and multiple tunings.
Lastly, I used the notational system for the gyil presented in the dissertation “Performance Practice of the Dagara-Birifor Gyil Tradition Through the Analysis of the Bewaa and Daarkpen Repertoire” by Dr. Michael Vercelli. As in all other West African traditional music, gyil music is passed through an aural tradition which does not conform to any notational practices. There is a shorthand notation common to Woma’s students but, I think that this notation best displays the harmonic and melodic possibilities of the instrument.