I had for some years been discussing with tubist Gene Pokorny the possibility of writing a piece for him, but somehow it never quite seemed to happen. Then, in the summer of 1995, towards the end of a wonderful five-week residency at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, I found myself with time on my hands as I had finished all the projects I had gone there to work on. I had recently taken a new position at the University of Louisville, where the tuba teacher, John Jones, and I had also spoken about the possibility of writing a tuba piece. Accordingly, it seemed like a good time to-finally-turn out a work for tuba. Somehow writing for unaccompanied tuba or tuba and piano didn't appeal to me, but percussion, which can match the tuba for volume at both the soft and loud ends of the dynamic spectrum, and which also provides a huge range of tone colors, seemed like a natural partner.
The title of this composition, And What Rough Beast …?, is, of course, taken from the final two lines of William Butler Yeats' great-and terrifying-apocalyptic poem, "The Second Coming:"
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
How I came to use this passage as a source for a title is perhaps worth recounting. I usually have the title for a piece before I begin to write it, and for several years I have rarely used "generic" titles like Sonata or Quartet. Accordingly, when I resolved to write a piece for tuba and percussion I needed a good title. It happened that composer Barbara Kolb was also in residence that summer at the MacDowell Colony, and we played a game or two of Scrabble almost every night after dinner. One night she put down the uncommon word "gyre," and I began quoting the opening lines of "The Second Coming:"
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
I then thought of the poem's famous conclusion and had my title.
Musically, the piece is constructed more-or-less as a rondo, with sly, insinuating music alternating with music that is bolder and more assertive. Gradually, as the beast (which is to say, the Antichrist) gains confidence, the bolder music wins out, and even the earlier, more subtle music is completely transformed as the piece reaches its final climax.
And What Rough Beast …? is recorded on Gene Pokorny's CD, Big Boy, Summit Records DCD 283. He is joined by percussionist Ted Atkatz. Their live performances on the Chicago Chamber Musicians subscription series in 1999 received a glowing review in the Chicago Tribune. Among other comments, reviewer Dan Tucker said that the work "defies summing up except by a single key phrase: It works." and "The tuba's groans and grunts grow louder and more threatening the pulse grows faster and more complex, until the piece ends in a howling, jangling brawl of bells and thunder. 'Exciting' is putting it mildly."
And What Rough Beast …? has been performed in various venues around the United States, and also in Europe and Japan.