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Michael Daugherty’s Viola Zombie

Paul Groh


One of the more memorable concerts I played during my years with the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra was called “Roll Over Beethoven.”  The programme consisted of orchestral works composed by former rock stars, including Paul McCartney’s Standing Stone, Keith Emerson’s Piano Concerto, Frank Zappa’s Dog Breath Variations, and the suite from Holy Blood and Crescent Moon by Stewart Copeland of the Police.  We opened with a piece called Dead Elvis, scored for L’Histoire du Soldat septet fronted by the bassoonist, who is instructed to wear a sequined jumpsuit, pompadour wig, fake sideburns and sunglasses while blowing rockabilly riffs on the Dies Irae

This was my introduction to the music of Michael Daugherty, who, although he has never been a rock star, is probably the closest thing the contemporary classical music scene has to one.  His works, as Dead Elvis suggests, combine pop cultural idioms with traditional forms and formats; they have been widely performed throughout North America and Europe and proven popular with audiences everywhere.  Daugherty has found inspiration in everything from Superman (Metropolis Symphony) to Citizen Kane (Once Upon a Castle), from westerns (Spaghetti Western) to science fiction (UFO, Time Machine), from Desi Arnaz and Frank Sinatra to Mozart and Liberace.  Daugherty stands a full two metres tall; comments about him being a towering figure in American music are starting to wear a little thin, but the metaphor is nonetheless accurate.

About a year later the KSO performed Daugherty’s piece about Barbie dolls, What’s That Spell? which, like Dead Elvis, lacks a viola part.  I did not have the opportunity to play his music myself until I discovered a duet for two violas that he composed in 1991, which bears the intriguing title Viola Zombie.

A zombie, of course, is a reanimated corpse.  Zombi, or jumbee, is a West Indian Creole word, ultimately of African origin, meaning spirit or ghost.  In the Caribbean belief system of Voodoo, zombies serve the dictates of the sorcerer who brought them back to life; but it is the zombies who obey no master, who are mindlessly impelled to seek out and destroy the living, that are the really scary ones.  Stories of ravenous armies of the dead are found in every culture, and are as old as humankind.  In the ancient Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, the goddess Ishtar makes the following vow of vengeance:

I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,
I will smash the doorposts, and leave the doors flat down,
And will let the dead go up to eat the living!
And the dead will outnumber the living!

This is a fairly accurate description of the seminal zombie film, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), as well as its four sequels, three remakes, and dozens of imitators.  Zombie movies function on a variety of metaphorical levels, including: the inherent fragility of human civilization; the inability of institutional authority to cope with unforeseen crises; the mindless conformity that pervades much of our society; our failure as individuals to come to terms with the universality and inexorability of death; and so on.  On a purely visceral level, they can also be very entertaining to watch if you’re in the right mood.  Having screamed, and laughed, my head off at all of Romero’s zombie films as well as many others in the same vein, I knew that Viola Zombie was one piece that I had to have in my library.

My initial reaction, as is so often the case after ordering music purely on the basis of a cool title, was one of disappointment.  The notes state that, like other works composed by Daugherty in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, “Viola Zombie explores the musical and timbral possibilities of two similar instruments separated stereophonically on stage…. In performance, the violists should be separated by at least twelve feet [3.65 m].”

In other words, Daugherty has created a live performance context that simulates the effect of a stereo recording.  Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

Such spatial effects in live performance were heavily exploited in the new music of the 1960s and ‘70s, many composers of that time having been inspired by Karlheinz Stockhausen’s influential lectures on “Music in Space.”  I remember attending a concert at the Berkshire Music Festival that featured Iannis Xenakis’s Persephassa for six percussionists situated in the corners, and at the sides, of the concert hall.  While observing part of a rehearsal, I realised that the only place where all six parts could be heard in perfect balance was at the very centre of the auditorium, where the conductor was standing; so I arrived at the concert an hour early and took a seat directly in front of the podium.  It was a warm night, and the hall was not air conditioned.  Soon the conductor, looming over me, began to perspire freely, dousing me with droplets of sweat on every upbeat.  As I wiped the spattered secretions from my glasses afterwards, it occurred to me that spatial effects in music were not nearly as appealing to the audience as some composers seem to think they are.

And from a performer’s perspective, especially in a duet like Viola Zombie, they’re even worse.  It’s hard enough to achieve perfect synchrony and balance with another player under the best of circumstances; it’s practically impossible if your partner is standing way off in West Bullamakanka somewhere.  Chamber music is an inherently intimate activity, one that requires some physical propinquity among its participants if we are to support and respond to each other effectively.  Long distance relationships rarely work out.

Spatial gimmicks aside, however, there is good stuff in Viola Zombie.  Musically the work is derived from the conventions of old horror movie scores; and while these have long since become cinematic clichés, they have so far had little impact upon the viola repertoire.  Thus Viola Zombie adds something new, and yet familiar, to the literature for our instrument.

The piece opens atmospherically with a “Zombie andante”, in which a rhythmic col legno battuto figure is punctuated by accented pizzicato chords on all four open strings.  A theremin-like effect – sustained high notes alternating between non vibrato and molto vibrato, and between ordinario and sul ponticello – is added to the texture, which gains intensity as it builds to a climax of shrieking glissandi in contrary motion.  These come to rest on high A and high C – a full octave higher than what we normally think of as high A and high C – before sliding down molto vibrato into the next section of the piece, “Jerks of rigor mortis,” consisting of tone clusters against the open A string played sforzando in free, irregular rhythm.  (Here Daugherty is plainly thinking of postmortem or cadaveric spasms, which Edgar Allan Poe used to chilling effect in his story “Ecce Homo,” but which have nothing to do with rigor mortis per se.) 

The jerks increase in frequency until they become a tremolo, ushering in the “Zombie revivus,” a passage of rapid semiquavers based on an octatonic scale.  The scale is fragmented and repeated until it transforms into an ostinato that approximates the opening of the Twilight Zone theme.  (The Twilight Zone was a great show, with some of the most innovative music ever written for television; but although many of its characters returned from the dead, they seldom did so in zombie form.)  This is developed in a frenetic “Zombie presto” that eventually fades into a recapitulation of the opening “Zombie andante”, with tremolo substituting for the previous vibrato effects, as though the theremin had been replaced with an ondes Martenot.  The Twilight Zone motive returns, accelerating in a “Zombie con furore” as it builds to a climax of dissonant chords (essentially F# major over the open G and D strings) before concluding dramatically on a low C#/G tritone, sul ponticello.  Nothing spells out horror like the diabolo in musica.

It’s hard not to like a piece as cheeky as this.  It has just the right mixture of drama, chills and good humour that characterises the best zombie movies, and the best music.  The viola writing is idiomatic, colourful, and clever.  It is a one-of-a-kind viola duet from one of America’s most celebrated composers; thus Viola Zombie breathes new life, as it were, into a genre that has been largely moribund since the days of Stamitz and W. F. Bach.

Violists should be cautioned, however.  Viola Zombie is not an easy piece to pull off.  The rapid and extended passages of semiquavers in quick tempi, while unquestionably a handful, are actually the least problematic.  The really difficult part is the opening “Zombie andante,” with its variety of textures and timbres, because these effects are so dissimilar to our usual approach to playing the instrument.  A high B flat held for four bars, and changing in that time gradually from non vibrato to molto vibrato, from ordinario to sul ponticello, and from pianissimo to forte and back again, is much harder to play than it appears on the page; and like all music, it must be practiced carefully.

Also, the tempo indications, most of them very fast, need to be taken seriously.  This is one zombie that cannot be suffered to plod lethargically along.  Daugherty uses a great deal of repetition to create tension and suspense, but this will simply become monotonous if the tempo is allowed to fall slack.  In the “Jerks of rigor mortis” section, which specifies a free, irregular rhythm, the irregularity should be on the side of brevity.  The score gives the duration of the piece as circa 10 minutes; taking the tempi as written, I timed it at less than eight minutes, which I think is what we should aim for.  The energetic, bustling zombies of John A. Russo’s Living Dead series, rather than Romero’s shambling stiffs, should be our model here.

The New York Times called Viola Zombie “thoroughly tiresome,” but that may have been a reflection on the particular performance under review.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s a fun and challenging addition to the viola literature, well worth playing on any recital or chamber music concert.

But if you do, please, do yourselves a favour and stand at a reasonable distance from each other in performance.  It makes no sense to take positions at opposite ends of the stage, thereby creating a host of unnecessary problems in timing and ensemble, all for the sake of a stereophonic effect that won’t even be noticeable beyond the first few rows of the audience.  We violists already have enough distance and alienation in our lives.  Our motto should be the Beatles’ “Come Together,” not the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”  This is one instance where the composer’s explicit instructions may be safely disregarded.  It’s not as if he’s going to hunt you down and eat your brain if you fail to do his bidding.

At least, I hope not….

Michael Daugherty’s VIOLA ZOMBIE is published by Peer-Southern Concert Music, New York, and may be ordered from any number of online sheet music retailers.