When I began writing “Excellent Sheep,” I was inspired by two sheep-related musical ideas. The first was the iconic 1969 piece “Les Moutons de Panurge,” by Frederic Rzewski, in which the musicians are instructed to play in unison but piece gradually becomes rhythmically complicated enough that it will almost inevitably come apart, like sheep getting lost. The second was the phenomenon of a Shepard tone, in which glissandi overlap in such a way to create an aural illusion of a constantly descending glissando, similar to an Escher staircase.
While searching for a sheep-related title, I recalled the book “Excellent Sheep” by William Deresiewicz. The premise of this book is that in the field of higher education, competition for elite opportunities leads students to pad their resumes to the point of diminishing returns and at the expense of deeper reflection and creativity. I have felt these same pressures as a composer and college professor, that the externally-imposed need to constantly be productive can inhibit deeper growth.
With these thoughts in mind, “Excellent Sheep” veers between varying degrees of unison and rhythmic instability. The players come together only to fall apart again – the descending chromatic Shepard tones overlap creating ever more instability before re-aligning in lockstep.
“Excellent Sheep” was commissioned by National Sawdust, as a result of an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Hildegard competition.