painting by Joseph Raffael
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Second Nature W. A. Mathieu

Listen to 'Creek Patterns'
from Second Nature

Second Nature (2004)

I like the idiom “second nature." The first nature is the soul; by second nature someone does something, like throwing a baseball or playing the piano, as if it were part of himself. I live in an exquisite valley I look at 365 days a year, and somehow the beauty of the valley turns into music. The wind in the tall grass makes green waves by nature; by second nature these become flowing chords. The growth patterns of tress become a musical composition.

When I recorded this album in 1983, I'd already been experimenting with the cross-rhythms of African music, especially the Shona music of Zimbabwe, for about ten years. These rhythms and their attendant harmonies arose from the African earth and spoke through its people. When I first heard them I felt a great musical resonance, but inside that I sensed an even greater kinship. We're all exiles from an Africa we've never been to or seen, and playing these rhythms while watching the seasons change from the slopes of Barnett Valley was like discovering a homeland.

I’d already employed these cross-rhythms extensively in shorter pieces from four to eight minutes long in two previous albums (see the compilation album Streaming Wisdom / In the Wind,. By now they had begun to feel enough like second nature to attempt weaving them into longer pieces. Valley Rondo is the first of these: a single 20-minute movement utilizing African cross-rhythms as structural forms. After a slow note-by-note introduction, the exposition of the first group of cross-rhythm themes, which serve as a ritornello, ends at about 4:00; beginning at 5:00 they return. The note-by-note motif introduces new material at about 6:30; at about 8:00, the bass of the ritornello supports new material. Then, after another note-by-note slow bridge, the same bass supports variations. At 11:00 the original themes begin to sneak back in, and after a nod to a classical cadence (at 11:35), there is a true return, which lasts until at 12:30. Now the note-by-note texture, but with extended harmony, introduces the development of a series of motifs we’ve already heard, plus new material. Hints and promises of the final return begin to emerge about 13:40, morphing and dodging variously, the actual return seeming ever closer. Then at 17:00, a final climb, initiating a string of false returns (wrong key) until the final return at 17:48. Then the music gently recedes, like a valley sloping down to its creek bed.

The sparkling sounds of Creek Patterns are created by laying thin jewelry chains across the piano strings and recording at half-speed so the playback, at full speed, is an octave higher, twice as fast, and sparkly. The piece is really an abstract study in multitrack patterns, entered into for the sheer delight of the layered sounds.

Second Nature is also a study in cross patterns, but reflects my jazz upbringing. Some pieces give composers a hard time, like certain children (maybe even the ones who turn out best) give their parents, but this piece composed itself, earning its title. Note the quote from Charlie Parker’s jazz standard Billie’s Bounce at 3:19.

Sweet Cadence is half shout, half pedagogy. It’s source is a series of cadential models composition teachers use to teach harmony. (I’ve developed these at length in my book Harmonic Experience,). Sometimes I ask certain harmony students to go through the piece and, like a treasure hunt, locate and identify the models. The core motif is the basic sound of Western harmony: a rocking back and forth from subdominant triad to tonic triad to dominant triad, then back to the tonic triad, etc. (Also check out 3:24 and 4:40, straight from the book.) But the piece is more than a mere compendium; its true intention is to show how the simplest elements can give the deepest pleasure, and be a source of inspiration.

The Americana theme of Sky Inside opens out into a seven-against-four cross, and the contrast between the simplicity of the tunes and the complexities of the time move the music along.

Boundary Variations is my earliest use of cross rhythms to develop a long form, and its episodes are studies for what came after, so if you listen to the compilation album Streaming Wisdom / In the Wind and then this album straight through you’ll hear finally the thing that came first. The pattern introduced at 4:48, which keeps recurring, was the first cross pattern I ever learned. Notice the similarity of the brief episode at 6:43 to the principal motif of Valley Rondo. The mbira pattern that begins at 8:29, and which I sing over, has proved enduring: it has wound its way through my music in one form or other since the first day I found it.


Second Nature, a CD reissue of the 1983 audio cassette, is available from
Cold Mountain Music