Butter the Ferocious Linguist


Mantequilla Feroz was the second “serious” piece I wrote, completed my senior year of College, performed by Counter)Induction in Spring, 2007. It is dedicated to the magnanimous Butter (hence the name) and his successful efforts at applying to graduate school in linguistics. The song is all over the place – it seems to be coming apart at the seams. To me, it’s a somewhat painfully clunky early effort, although it has certain beautiful isolated moments. Prior to completion, I had just heard the final movement of Messiaen’s Turangalila symphony for the first time, and took many liberties with the presentation of very divergent materials. With only one listen, my ear hadn’t yet grasped the underlying consistencies in Turangalila, and it seemed liked a huge, episodic monument of tremendously divergent themes juxtaposed one after the other. Messiaen pulled it off because 1) he’s a damn genius, and 2) it was a recapitulatory movement, and he was simply revisiting themes that had already been hashed out. I naively approached my short chamber piece with these ideas fresh on my mind – ready to make some origami with a chainsaw.

The solo opening melody is butter, unadulterated. Chilling, breathing, gradually unraveling entirely at its own pace, completely impervious to its surroundings. The melody dominates all musical parameters until around 1 minute. As the work progresses, the melody runs into a few obstacles, gets slightly beat up, altered, is thrust into new, ever stranger environments. Uncertainty prevails, and the listener begins to wonder if he’ll ever hear from Butter again. A terribly deformed version is heard at 3.20′ – accentuated with a gliss.-  then a few more statements, gradually truer to the original. One never hears the “pure” full melody again, only a little bit of the tail at the very end. Has butter been lost forever?

It’s not a programmatic piece, and not to be taken literally, rather these ideas simply helped guide the general feel during the process of composition. Perhaps the most interesting thing for me is how the melody has grown to represent Butter in an almost quasi-linguistic sense. The series of notes, with their sustained tones and jerky, uneven rhythms, now have as much semantic quality as the word “butter” in my mind – they both point to the same person. This curiously speaks to the historically-specific nature of refferentialism. Except under unique circumstances (l’academie francaise and onomatopoeia come to mind), most words are rather arbitrarily assigned to their referents over generations of linguistic evolution.

I expect to use this melody again and again to represent butter in my future works

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