Five Animated Shorts

for ensemble

Five Animated Shorts
1. Depending (4.5’)
2. Dancing For Sarah (3.5’)
3. Slippery Dog (4.5’)
4. Still in Motion (3.5’)
5. Lonely Motel (7.5’)

The idea to write a piece for cimbalom and mixed ensemble came from Tim Williams. As a percussionist and artistic director of the contemporary chamber ensemble Psappha, Tim had performed my music often and knew that I was sympathetic to “underdog” instruments – instruments not entirely embraced by the western concert music establishment. Tim taught himself how to play the cimbalom out of love for the instrument and he is now one of only a few concert cimbalom players outside of Hungary.

I primarily associate the cimbalom with gypsy, vernacular music although I am familiar with its use by composers such as Kurtag. Tim and I were both interested in an ensemble piece that featured the cimbalom but not a concerto per se. I again thought of the cimbalom in a more indigenous setting (like at Tim’s wedding) where it plays exhilarating folk music with other instruments (guitar, violin, bass etc). The cimbalom in that context leads much of the music the way a singer might, by presenting the tune and embellishing it but it is still part of the group, not in opposition or competition with the group as a concerto soloist often is. In Five Animated Shorts all the instruments have important soloistic roles and the Piano, in particular, shares the spotlight with the cimbalom. The different but related timbres between the two instruments, both struck with felt hammers, is an important orchestrational focus of the piece. The existence of the cimbalom in the ensemble transforms the familiar modern music group into something a bit exotic.

Also contributing to the form and substance of Five Animated Shorts, were some discussions and preliminary work I had done with another friend and frequent collaborator Rinde Eckert. We were leading a workshop on creating experimental music theater for which he invented a character  – a scientist performing psychological experiments involving the identification of out of focus slides. Rinde wrote the following text:

Slide of
Slide of dog
Slide of dog running
Dog running

This was just one of many hypothetical images that Rinde described on behalf of his psychologist alter ego. This line in particular stuck with me for a variety of reasons: Rinde and I are both dog owner/lovers. I liked the idea of writing music that would both set this text and animate the implicit motion in a still photo of a running dog. I liked the simple additive and subtractive process that connects the single word “Slide”, at the top, to “Running”, at the bottom. The motion between “Slide” and “Running” connects them as action words even though “Slide” started life as a noun. Issues pertaining to this line of text permeate Slippery Dog and Still in Motion.

As I began composing for cimbalom with all these ideas as a back drop (instrumental folk music via cimbalom, dogs, running, sliding, creepy scientists with projectors, etc.) the music started to take shape as 4 short character sketches followed by a long lullaby (Lonely Motel).

Each movement seems to have a little narrative to share or scene to draw and because of the quirky characters and generally bright, playful colors, the medium of short animated films seemed like a helpful metaphor to invoke in the title, not to mention the fact that four of the five pieces are literally animated and relatively short.

— Steven Mackey