Coffee Hands

Duration:    18:00

Difficulty:    Advanced/Professional

Instrumentation:    full orchestra


Program Notes:

Coffee. Dark and rich, hot, aromatic. Percolated, drip-brewed, French press, espresso, Turkish coffee. Many of us enjoya good cup of coffee, but where does it come from? What processes move it from its point of growth to my kitchen? I have a long history with coffee, beginning in a local coffee business in Nashville. I learned to brew, to extract espresso, to roast coffee. I also learned about the coffee culture: the farmers and pickers, the processors, the shipping, roasting, and production of coffee.

The delicate coffee tree that produces arabica beans can only be grown in a few regions of the world. Coffee was discovered in Ethiopia and spread from there throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East. It was smuggled from there to India and spread with Dutch colonials through Indonesia. The French brought coffee to Central and South America. For each of these people groups, coffee represents long days and back-breaking labor. It also represents hope and economic viability. And it is community. Unlike the drive-thru coffee you might find in the U.S., it is common in these cultures for coffee to be accompanied by ceremony. And where there is social gathering, there is music. Music for these people is celebration, communication, a way of maintaining working rhythms, it is distraction and pleasure. And each of these cultures creates music in its own way.

Coffee Hands brings together these very different people united by a simple tree. The piece follows the spread of coffee from Africa through Indonesia to South America. Each movement focuses on one people group from the coffee trade. I spent a lot of time listening to and transcribing field recordings and music from each region, carefully choosing musical characteristics from each culture to flavor each movement.

The piece begins with the African people, utilizing driving rhythms, polyrhythm and pentatonic melodies, often with triadic harmonies. The second movement focuses on the island people of Indonesia. This section blends the highly ornamented flute music of Sumatra with pulsing ostinatos found in gamelan. Layers of polyphony moving at different speeds create a mass of shimmering sound. The last movement follows coffee to the people of South America. Coffee came centuries later here; with it came the influences of European harmony. Here I chose to highlight the South American adaptation of that harmony, incorporating it into their own musical expression. This movement features soaring, romantic lines, lush harmonies, and many of the grooves so prolific in South American music, anchored to son clave rhythms.

Just as these cultures are bound together by coffee, a common thread runs through these disparate sounds. All of the motivic ideas are generated from the same pitch material, focusing on the notes C, A, F, and E. All the themes return and are tied together at the conclusion of the final movement.

For most of these people, coffee is their livelihood, whether picking the cherries, pulping and drying, or taking them for trade. The next time you drink coffee, take a moment to consider all the hands that have been a part of the journey from around the globe to your cup. Coffee, like music, has intrinsic qualities but is experienced and enjoyed in many different ways. Music, like coffee, is an integral part of cultures all around the globe. How do you take your coffee?

Below are some computer realizations of the piece. While these are less than ideal, they do give a general sense of the score. If you are interested in a perusal score or in performing the piece, please email me.

      I. Hands of Africa
      II. Hands of Indonesia
      I. Hands of South America


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