Ethnic Sketches

Ethnic Sketches

Ethnic Sketches

for solo double bass

Program Notes

  1. Little Dancer (Laotian Folksong)
  2. Pawnee Ghost-Dance Song
  3. Hungarian Medley
  4. Albanian Ballad
  5. Afro-Venezuelan Song from Yaguaraparo
  6. Clerk Saunders (A Child Ballad)
  7. Chadian Fantasy

This set of short pieces was commissioned by bassist Sidney King of the Louisville Orchestra. When he approached me with the possibility of a commission he had something very specific in mind. The piece had to take musical inspiration from different cultures from around the world; it had to be in several short movements; the movements had to be self-contained enough to change the order around or just play a few if the occasion demanded; it had to be suitable for the many school concerts he gives but also substantive enough for inclusion on a formal recital. Oh – and it had to use a lot of the interesting sounds and special effects available on the bass.

With all that in mind I took a deep breath and plunged in. Sidney and I watched some videotapes from the wonderful JVC Anthology of World Music and Dance; I dug out some ethnomusicology books from the library and re-examined the folk section of my record and CD collection and eventually I came up with the seven ideas explored in this set. Several of the pieces amount to short sets of variations on the principal tune, one is a mini-homage to the various composers who have written “Hungarian Rhapsodies,” and one doesn’t use any folk material all, but explores a sound world suggested by an Albanian ballad singer.

I do not claim to be an expert on any of these musical traditions, but I have endeavored to treat all the borrowed material with respect. Brief descriptions of the movements follow.

I. Little Dancer (Laotian Folksong) – Variations on a Laotian folksong transcribed for my wife, Rebecca, by a Laotian-American student in one of her music theory classes.

II. Pawnee Ghost-Dance Song – Variants on a tune collected by the pioneering ethnomusicologist Frances Densmore in 1919-1920.

III. Hungarian Medley – Relatively straightforward presentations of four Hungarian melodies collected by Béla Bartók. A sort of mini Hungarian Rhapsody, done looking nervously over my shoulders for the (possibly disapproving) specters of Liszt, Brahms, Kódaly and Bartók himself. In the confines of a short piece, I can’t begin to match the work they did with Hungarian folk music, but I can admire it and pay tribute to it.

IV. Albanian Ballad – This movement goes the furthest afield of any in the collection. I haven’t used any actual folk material, but instead I was inspired by a video (in the JVC series mentioned above) of an Albanian ballad singer, who accompanied himself with rapid, florid passages on the lahuta, a bowed lute. The vocal and lahuta passages were closely intertwined, producing a marvelous heterephony.

V. Afro-Venezuelan Song from Yaguaraparo – A melody in an unusual quintuple meter, doubtless reflecting the African heritage of the Caribbean coast of South America. Adapted from a melody in Luis Felipe Ramón y Rivera’s La Música Afrovenezolana.

VI. Clerk Saunders (A Child Ballad) – One of my favorites among the ballads collected in Francis James Child’s monumental work, English and Scottish Popular Ballads. “Clerk Saunders” tells a tale of love, treachery, murder and a ghostly apparition, set to a wonderful and poignant melody. Although Child himself collected only the texts, Bertrand Bronson has gathered many of the tunes to which these ballads were (and are) sung in Singing Traditions of Child’s Popular Ballads. My version of the tune is about halfway between his and one I learned from the singing of Scottish traditional singer Jean Redpath.

VII. Chadian Fantasy – A brief exploration of some rhythms and a tune fragment from Chad, taken from the JVC video anthology series. The percussive aspects of the bass, explored a little in previous movements, are fully exploited here.


Sidney King commissioned this work with financial assistance from Jane and F. W. Woolsey, the Floyd County Council for the Arts, May Wetherby Jones, Mr. Frank Abell, Amy and Roger Baylor, Mrs. Mary Jane Kutz, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Woodcock, Mr. and Mrs. Pete Castella and Mrs. Gloria Shrader.

After performing various movements in his school concerts over the course of an academic year, Mr. King gave the formal premiere of the entire piece in a series of recitals in Texas and Indiana. Following these performances, we made some minor changes and corrections in the score, which are reflected in this version. I am grateful to Sidney for his help and suggestions, as well as for his willingness to dig in and do things he had never done before.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

A message is required.
Name is required.
E-mail address is required.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.