Fireflies: A Folk Set for Flute and Guitar (2006-08)

28 minutes

 

Instrumentation: flute, guitar

Recording: Fireflies: Chamber Music by Andrew Earle Simpson/Red Cedar Trio (Fleur de Son Classics, 2009)

 

Six-movement suite commissioned by Iowa-based Red Cedar Chamber Music: music in folk style and/or based on folk tunes.

 

Audio:

In The Sunflower Patch (excerpt)


Intake Manifold (excerpt)


Stars In My Crown (excerpt)


Hallelujah! I'm A Bum (excerpt)

 

Program Notes:

Fireflies was commissioned by the Boland/Dowdall Duo (Jan Boland, flute, John Dowdall, guitar: Red Cedar Chamber Music), and is the final piece commissioned of me as Red Cedar's Composer in Residence.  The title "Fireflies" not only refers to the nature of these short pieces as glowing gems, but also hearkens back to an image which Jan and John shared with me during our first phone conversation: the image (familiar also to me, as a native midwesterner) of fireflies (or, as we called them, "lightning-bugs") collecting in vast numbers in the yard in the early summer evening.  It was a happy image for us, which they wanted to celebrate, in some way, during our time together.  Happily, this final piece has realized, in spirit if not in fact, that vision.

 

Previously, the wonderful musicians of Red Cedar (either as a flute-guitar duo, or as the Red Cedar Trio, with the violist David Miller) have performed three works of mine, two of which they premiered: Winter-Night Canticles, for flute and guitar (a Christmas suite which predates my association with Red Cedar), Tesserae: Six Mosaics of Ancient Rome (which Red Cedar premiered in 2004), and American Gothic Suite, variations on Grant Wood's painting, premiered by Red Cedar in 2005.  All of these works are, more or less, in what might best be described as a "classical" style of writing.  Although popular genres certainly influence these pieces (there is, for example, a calypso movement in Winter-Night Canticles, and a jazz-suffused movement in American Gothic Suite), these genres have always been part of an overriding "classical" perspective. 

 

For this final piece for Red Cedar, Jan and John wanted something different.  As musicians who work and live in Iowa, they have a great affection for American folk music (as do I), and so the commission was to create a piece based very strongly on folk idioms.  This project appealed to me greatly, because I also love American folk song, not only in its early American versions, but in the folk music genres made popular in the 1960's. 

 

We decided that some of the movements of this suite (or, as I have called it, perhaps more aptly, a "set") would be based on pre-existing melodies, and some would be original melodies.  Two of the six pieces in this set (which may be played together, separately, or in any order) are based on previous tunes ("Hallelujah! I'm a Bum" and "Sweet By and By").  "Stars in My Crown," although an original tune, sets the pre-existing text of that well-known revival hymn.

 

I jumped at the opportunity to create music in a style which I loved; however, at the same time, I knew that this project would be the most difficult, in some ways, of all the pieces I had done for Red Cedar.  I am not a guitarist, and although I have learned a great deal in writing extensively for guitar, all of my previous work has been in classical style.  Folk guitar is a very different idiom, one learned and transmitted mainly through non-written means, and so my attempts to capture a style notationally would involve many challenges and revisions. 

 

And so, we discovered that a different working process would be in order for this piece.  Rather than creating the music and sending drafts to the duo, it became necessary for us to sit down together in the same room, for me to propose my ideas to John in the best approximation I could make, then have John play through the figures, work them out, and then either incorporate them or suggest additions, deletions, or alterations to the patterns.  This is a particular challenge, since I am based in Washington, DC, and Jan and John are in Iowa!  But, I made two trips to Iowa during the course of the writing to participate in what was an amazingly rewarding process. 

 

Folk music for guitar depends upon the player finding a comfortable hand position, then employing a consistent strumming or picking pattern which takes advantage of that hand position without undue strain.  This is the sort of requirement which only a guitarist would know how to meet, and so the process of working through patterns with John not only represented the most collaborative venture we have tried, but was something immensely instructive for me. 

 

Although the musical ideas are all mine, and the structure of the patterns is mine, it is John who has acted as the creative "editor" in the process of creation, and has helped to shape the patterns in a way which both preserves my intent and makes the style as "folk-like" as possible. 

 

With Jan, also, I worked through patterns on the flute: in the case of that instrument, the greatest challenge was writing music which was inherently vocal in nature.  The flute does have great lyrical qualities, although some of the elements which strings, for example, are very adept at employing (such as portamento and vibrato) are more difficult on the flute, and so Jan and I worked to make the flute part as "vocal" as possible.

 

The happiest result of this intimately collaborative process is that the finished piece is quite playable, since everything written for both guitar (and flute) is comfortable and gratifying for the musicians.

 

--Andrew Earle Simpson

 

Movements of the Set:

Each small piece focuses on a different type of American folk music, and each is roughly similar in length: 2-3 minutes.

 

1. In the Sunflower Patch: An upbeat original tune in A major, owing a good deal to the tradition of American fiddle tunes.

 

2. Intake Manifold: Urban blues, evoking images of chrome and steel, big trucks and oily garages.  A study of the hard-working life of the American. 

 

3. Stars in my Crown: A slow, melancholy original tune which sets the line, "Will there by any stars in my crown?," from a well-known revival hymn.  The music has Celtic overtones, particularly when Jan plays this movement (as she sometimes does) on a 19th-century flute.  (Period instruments are another specialty of Red Cedar.)

 

4. Sun on the River: This piece, again to original music, evokes the style of sunny guitar patterning, and a somewhat sentimental mood, that reminds me most of John Denver's music. 

 

5. Hallelujah, I'm a Bum! This comic song, which sources say originated in the Spanish-American War, became very popular as a hobo tune during the Great Depression.  The refrain is:

 

"Hallelujah, I'm a Bum!
Hallelujah, Bum again!
Hallelujah, give us a handout
And revive us again!"

 

The lines are a parody of the revival hymn, "Revive Us Again." Far from the style of its pious forerunner, however, this movement is set as a drunken, rollicking waltz. 

 

6. Sweet By and By: Intended as a benediction of sorts, this movement, after a slow opening, presents a more or less "straight" version of the hymn, in upbeat tempo.  A middle section brings back the music of the other movements, passing them in review for a final glimpse (and, at one point, a motive from "Tesserae," my first piece written for Red Cedar, appears).  The best possible scenario for this movement would be to have audiences clap along and sing the words to the hymn, since it is a celebration of friendship and community as much as a piece of chamber music.

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