Robinson McClellan ~ composer



for Wind Ensemble / Concert Band
Duration ca. 9 minutes

Premiered by Yale Philharmonia Wind Ensemble
John Concklin, conductor, November 2, 2006 at Sprague Hall in New Haven, CT

Recording from the premiere performance:

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About the piece

In 1745 the English army massacred hundreds of Highland warriors at the Battle of Culloden, decisively crushing the Gaels’ independence.  From this historical fact, I dreamed up an imaginary scenario: nursing their wounds, the clans had a premonition of the worldwide disturbance that would soon be caused by the budding British Empire, so they decided to issue a warning to other cultures that lay in the path of the English.  This piece is that warning.  Sasannach (which derives from "Saxon") is the Gaelic word for English people, so I had my title:  Beware the Sasannach!

A visit to the Louvre’s exhibition of Islamic art provided a musical impetus for the piece. I came across this phenomenal pattern on an 18th century Ottoman writing desk:


Staring at the pattern, I was reminded of the subtle, mind-bending quality of the early Gaelic and Welsh music I had been researching, so I decided to mimic it in sound.  Reconstructing the design with a ruler and pencil, I discovered a stunning depth of geometric ingenuity (try it yourself). Like the design, the overall musical structure is nearly symmetrical.  In the placid center of the piece, a French horn slowly traces the five diamond-shaped points of the design's center pentagram with five corresponding high E-flats.  These five notes are left in the haunting ‘flat’ tuning produced by brass instruments when they play the unaltered 7th partial in their harmonic series.

On a more minute level, the music follows rhythmic groupings of elevens and sevens—important structural numbers in the design—and likewise the marching bass line running through most of the piece is based on a pattern of interlocking fours and fives, which can be represented as a series of ones and zeroes, like this:  11110111001100010000.  In the music, this pattern is interpreted metrically in two different ways: sometimes it is divided into fours (1111 0111 etc.), elsewhere, at half the speed, into fives (11110 11100 etc.).  The idea of a pattern conceived and represented this way came from Robert ap Huw’s 1623 manuscript of Welsh harp music.  The manuscript uses a unique, and until recently undecipherable, tablature for the harp; but perhaps more interestingly (for a composer at least), it presents what appears to be a set of compositional formulas that may have been used in medieval Wales, but that were part of an oral tradition that was entirely lost apart from this unique (and much after-the-fact) attempt to write it down.  These formulas are literally represented in the manuscript, as above, as rows of ones and zeroes—a kind of medieval Celtic binary code.  Though my pattern is one I made up based on the Islamic design, many of those in ap Huw’s manuscript are also symmetrical and highly intricate.


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