Oh Man Oh Mankind Oh Yeah

program notes


photo Martin Jenkins

This work is simply about singing, transforming ponderous mass into weightless matter, sounding invisibly together, singing in reckless conflict and sweet harmony, singing with you… a contemporary community-sing, for over one hundred voices of the Huddersfield Choral Society, an ad hoc vocal ensemble of some 25 improvising vocalists, a ram’s horn, and an instrumental ensemble of 6 players and 4 bass drums.  The piece – a rigorous and transparent composition of about 60 minutes – is a fanciful compendium of human song, as well as a complex and challenging structure built from meticulous blocks of sonic accidents. Conventionally notated tonal music is intersected by spontaneously improvised song, spanning a vast array of vocalization and collective music making.  While always coordinated in time, the two choruses and instrumental ensemble often play independently…  

photos Susan Levenstein


A set of 5 interelated chords all topped with the note “c” – with “Oh man oh mankind oh yeah” sung to its numerous permutations – stands as a central axis to the whole work. The text for this piece as for many of my choral works is derived by free manipulation of mostly monosyllabic words taken from John Cage's Norton Lectures (Harvard University 1989). Other choral arrangements appear too, from the classic Protestant hymn dear to Charles Ives, “Shall We Gather by the River,” to an early choral composition of mine based on the first word of Finnegan's Wake – “Riverrun” – adapted for this occasion.  

The use of the ram's horn (shofar, in Hebrew) derives from an ongoing work for shofar and electronics created at the Experimental Studio of the SWR radio Freiburg in 2007-2008, and is occasion for me to enter into this work as a performer – generating with the horn’s “voice” endless unisons and random overlapping chorales of long tones with which the choruses and extra-vocal sounds enter into counterpoint.

In essence this work can be experienced as a paradigmatic confluence of the two most prominent and contradictory aspects of my music making – my obsessive search for new life on the other side of tonal harmony as well as new life in the most humble, ragtag, or sublime spontaneous accidents.  And all the while, serenely entrusting my ideas, notes and instructions to exceptional groups of non-professionals – a practice which has been characteristic of many of my works for some 40 years.

photo Susan Levenstein

Commissioned by the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 2009.


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