This is great stuff. Did Joel compile the grazing data or was he given the charts by a farmer or something? Can you describe a little bit about how the charts where converted to a musical framework?
Thanks! I can give my best understanding.
Joel's uncle has a cattle farm in...Montana...I think, where he has spent time over the years. I apologize in advance to anyone with any particular expertise in this subject, as I am a lifelong city kid and my entire understanding of the concept comes from an explanation in a rehearsal and a quick google search.
The basic idea for the piece came from the concept of "mob grazing," where ranchers will divide their land into a relatively larger number of pastures, use a high density of cows per acre and rotate them through each pasture over the course of a couple of years, letting a pasture rest for a year or more before grazing again. Again, a very rough comprehension of the subject on my part!
The piece was inspired by Joel's observation of how cows moved from one pasture to another, where the rancher would open up the gate to the pasture and some cows would go in right away, most would take a little time and then the stragglers would take longer.
The score was divided into an intro, several musical blocks, each inspired by a different pasture (ostensibly on the farm) and a little tag to play us out. He also provided a separate sheet with a photo of each pasture for reference. We played with both sheets on the music stands.
To perform, Joel was the rancher and we were the cattle. He would direct us from pasture to pasture (non-linear, any pasture can lead to any other) and we would move slowly according to his directions. Each pasture had small musical phrases and themes that we were supposed to use as the starting point or inspiration for improvisation. As you can hear in the recording, sometimes he would lead one or two or three of us into a pasture first with the rest to follow. Effectively, "you, you and you play a trio in this pasture" or "you two play a duet here," which is where you can hear the instrumentation get sparser. I think that aspect was inspired by things like Zorn's "Cobra" or Butch Morris's conduction ideas. Not that we are at that level!
We'd played this together I think twice prior to recording and each time came out very differently. We were playing relatively quietly on this particular day, which I liked. I took maybe the quietest solo I've ever played, with mixed results! Other times we played, I think we got a little too raucous and lost our way a bit.
One of the things I came to love about playing this was its slowness. You can hear that, as we move from one pasture to another, some of us stragglers are still playing the previous pasture for a few minutes. The idea that we could just really sit on an idea for as long as we wanted and wait for everyone to get there with us or take our time catching up to everyone else is kind of a different one from so much other music we play and having a structure to encourage that was a good way to get us out of some of the habits we build in ensemble playing around the ways we normally have to read and react as fast as possible. Which is not a bad thing at all, but it's interesting and rewarding and revealing to be in a situation where we are sort of deliberately slowing that down and trying to take our time. There are still times when I get impatient and push forward a bit too much though!