Later this month, I’m playing with a new group that’s been put together by Seth Bennett, a wonderful warm human being who plays double bass and composes. The project’s called What Love and is an octet of improvisers re-imagining the work of the great Charles Mingus.
Seth asked each of us to contribute a tune and opened up the vast canon of Mingus music for us to choose from. I dithered around as one by one, the band picked their pieces. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel inspired, it was just that I’d had my head burrowed in other composing projects and it was difficult to shift focus. Which work of Mingus’ did I have an emotional attachment to? I realised on a London bus as I travelled to teach one Wednesday evening. Epitaph. Mingus’ huge, bizarre, ambitious monster of a work that spans over 2 hours and 4,000 bars. I performed it for a friend’s final recital. It was difficult to get together, by turns ugly and beautiful and impossible and sublime. It’s a fitting Epitaph to Mingus, I think. So I decided to pick eight sections from Epitaph and create 8 individual graphic scores, each written specifically for a particular musician.
This is Part I: The Soul
I don’t want to reveal it all before it exists as sound with the band and I’d like them to be the first ones to fully understand the piece, but this score is the one I’ve written for myself so I can afford to elaborate a little on what you can see.
Each musician will be given three things – 1) a graphic score 2) fragments of notated music from the section of Epitaph the piece is based on and 3) information about the Epitaph is it inspired by.
In my case, the piece is The Soul which is the 6th part of Epitaph. There’s a video snippet of it being performed here on the mingusmingusmingus website.
The epitaph the score is inspired by is that of Chemist, writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi. I would urge you to read the profoundly important If This Is A Man and The Truce.
Levi was held in Monowitz, also known as Auschwitz III, a labour camp which was one of three main sites at Auschwitz complex. Of the 650 Jews transported to the camps with Levi, he was one of the 20 who left alive.
174517 was Levi’s record number, branded on his arm and used to identify him during the 11 months he was held. During that time, it defined him. Afterwards, it remained on his skin as a symbol of his past, his experience and his resilience.
Along with his birth and death dates and his name, 174517 is engraved on Primo Levi’s headstone.
174517 is written in red and black ink across the score, in columns roughly reminiscent of the Periodic Table. Layered on top of the columns is the floor-plan of Monowitz.
The piece also draws on inspiration from a work by Jasper Johns, a piece he created in 1992 called Nothing At All Richard Dadd. The dark, pencil drawing has layers of content built upon the floor-plan of Johns’ childhood home.