Totalist Orchestration

Composer Art Jarvinen, known as “the West-Coast totalist” (poor guy, he never got to come to any of the parties), writes to remind me, in detailing qualities of totalist music, that there was a characteristic totalist instrumentation as well as rhythmic style:

For totalist music to really work requires an edge. A lot of totalist composers have guitar or saxophone or electric keyboards (Rhodes, Hammond, Mini-Moog), or drum set, as their main instrument. I wrote for chromatic harmonica and baritone sax. I don’t want to hear a totalist piece for the Berlin Philharmonic, I want to hear Icebreaker, or the Berlin Phil-Harmonica Band! That’s why the Bang on a Can All Stars have an electric guitar. And Evan Ziporyn plays bass clarinet as if it were a Stratocaster! My totalist rhythmic/contrapuntal ideas and techniques might work with a string quartet, more or less. But my “totalist” pieces, if we are to call them that, work best with more vernacular (less standard/classical) instrumental combinations, that provide a certain edge not available in the standard instrumental groupings that are all about blend and balance. Balance? That’s why we have a guy at the mixing board!

When we recorded [Art’s piece] Clean Your Gun, I could hardly get the engineer to do what I wanted, which was, run the harmonica, cello, violin, and baritone sax through guitar amps, crank ‘em up, and mic the amps. He didn’t want to do it, even though I was paying him to. I had to tell him, it’s my piece, we’re going to take a bit of paint off the walls, and you just get it on tape! There is a clarity in amplification, vernacular instrumentation, and players who play like rock musicians – i.e. with a soloistic attitude and stage presence – that I would consider a vital and indispensable factor in the development and successful delivery of the totalist style. I would probably not have written any of my totalist pieces if I didn’t have access to the instrumental doublings of the E.A.R. Unit. They just wouldn’t sound right.

It’s true, there was generally a kind of mixed, all-or-partly amplified ensemble sound that made those pieces come off. Just as Nancarrow had to harden his piano hammers to keep his counterpoint masses from softening into mush, totalist music needed amplification and instruments with percussive attacks to bring off the gear-shifting tempo contrasts.

Although I might also mention that one of Art’s most rhythmically inventive works, The Paces of Yu (1990), was scored for solo berimbau (a simple Brazilian stringed instrument) accompanied by pencil sharpeners, window shutters, plucked wooden rulers, wooden boxes, mousetraps, and fishing reels. Here’s a small excerpt from the score, showing a section for flicked and jiggled window shutters. It employs a fairly common totalist or metametric rhythm, triplets in odd-numbered meters, so that downbeats contradict the momentum set up by the triplets, and also a gradual rhythmic process, showing the inheritance from minimalism:


And here’s a recording, courtesy of the California Ear Unit and O.O. Discs. (Warning, the opening is very soft for a few minutes.) It’s hardly a sonically typical totalist example, but a suitably whacky bit of pure Jarvinen.



  1. Jean Lawton says

    Marvellous piece! These examples also illustrate a concomitant trend in postclassical music, parallel to the change from simpler duple/triple rhythms to simultaneous higher prime (7 against 11, say) or relatively prime (9 against 8, say) meters. Namely, a change in the orchestration of western music from sustained harmonic series timbres with relatively slow or moderate attack times (strings, voices, woodwinds) to percussive instruments with inharmonic timbres and extremely rapid attack times: in this case, pencil sharpeners, window shutters, plucked wooden rulers, wooden boxes, mousetraps, and fishing reels.

    Indeed, much totalist (metametric) music tends to employ a wealth of percussive timbres not found in the typical Euro/North American classical orchestral ensemble. A glance at the music of Michael Gordon or Louis Andriessen suffices to show the trend. One obvious reason for using percussive timbres? To acid-etch metametric rhythms into the listener’s ear. But inharmonic percussive timbres also serves the secondary function of bending western rules of harmony, since inharmonic percussive timbres fail to generate the euphony we expect from major or minor triads.

    As the instrumentation of post-classical music moves from harmonic-series sustained timbres to inharmonic percussive sound-colours, we exit the demesne of Euro/North American art music and enter the realm of non-Western music. This has melodic and harmonic as well as rhythmic implications, for outside of India and Europe/North America, no other indigenous musical culture on earth uses tertian triadic harmonic progressions or 12 roughly equal pitch divisions of the octave. (For convenience let us lump Iceland in with Europe/North America, whilst recognizing that Icelandic pitch-systems characteristically employ distinctly non-western neutral seconds of roughly 150 cents
    just as Chinese music characteristically uses non-western neutral thirds of roughly 350 cents as well as non-Western 150-cent neutral seconds
    ) And the use of non-western pitch systems likely relates to the prevalence of inharmonic timbres in non-western music, as William Sethares has noted in Timbre, Tuning, Spectrum, Scale, Springer-Verlag, 1994.

    Thus, metametric (totalist) music represents not only a gateway to non-western rhythms but also to non-western musical timbres and non-western tunings. Parenthetically, “Non-Western” is shorthand here for “outside traditional common practice period European/North American pitch and rhythmic paradigms from roughly 1490 with the introduction of meantone to roughly 1929-1931 with the advent of Varese’s Ionisation, the first Western composition orchestrated entirely for percussion instruments.”

    This may also help explain why the uptown New York Lincoln Center crowd continues its futile effort to deny the legitimacy of totalist/metametric
    music. Once the Pandora’s box of non-Western pitch systems gets yanked open by contemporary western composers, the entire classical European art music scene starts to look like some soccer hoolies all jammed into one very crowded council housing flat in the midst of a vastly larger city named “World Music.”

  2. Jon Szanto says

    Great commentary, Jean! Your thoughts definitely make me want to know more about you and your music – any links or direction you’d care to share?

    And thanks, Kyle, for shining your light on all these otherwise neglected areas of art that has actually occurred.