memento mori (2019)

Commission: Robert McCormick for the McCormick Percussion Group

Instrumentation: double bass, violin and percussion quintet

Duration: 13 minutes

Program Information:
A memento mori is an artistic or symbolic reminder of mortality. May this work be a memorial for all that we have lost in this current climate – humanity, civility, morals, courage, empathy, compassion, logic, common sense, backbones – and be a charge for those who still stand righteous and strong to fight back, and never back down.

I have conceived of the double bass and violin parts as a single ‘superbass’ instrument. This superbass grows out of the percussion sound, growing from a pitched-rhythm (untuned) sound into it’s pitched bassness. As the piece progresses, the percussion instruments start taking on qualities of the superbass, moving toward pitchedness, and then into the typical bowed sound expected of string instruments. The work ends with antiphonal calls between two aquaphones that imitate the superbass harmonics that were heard earlier.

Premiere: April 14 2019 | McCormick Percussion Group, Julia Keller and Sini Virtanen (Strings & Hammers) | Tampa, FL

“Memento Mori by Emily Koh is a piece for violin, double bass, and percussion quintet. According to the composer, the violin and bass were conceived as a single instrument that she refers to as the “superbass.” The piece starts out with a taiko-inspired opening played by several of the percussionists. From there, the double bass grows out of the percussion sound before becoming more prominent. The percussion writing is quite interesting as it incorporates unorthodox instruments such as hollow plastic tubes as well as extended techniques such as scratching the drum heads with the fingernails. One interesting aspect about the piece as a whole is that both the stringed instruments and the percussion instruments take on the characteristics of one another. For example, at one point, the double bass player plays rhythms on the body of the bass with the hand as if it were a percussion instrument. Another example occurs around the halfway point when the violinist makes her entrance. The violinist plays a passage consisting of continuos glissandos while the bassist bows a high harmonic. Then one of the percussionists responds by playing a pssage on roto toms while another percussionist simultaneously detunes them resulting in an imitation of the violin glissandos. The works ends with antiphonal calls between two waterphones that imitate the harmonics played by the bassist earlier in the piece.”
Shane Reeves, National Association of College Wind and Percussion Instructors (NACWPI) Journal

Memento Mori (a reminder of one’s mortality) by Emily Koh begins with ominous rumblings in the percussion, followed by the lowest notes of the double-bass, which is cleverly combined with the violin to create one “super” instrument. This seems to open up a cavernous tomb-space into which have fallen: humanity, civility, morals, courage, empathy, compassion, logic, common sense, and backbone (according to the composer). The work ends with the highest whistle-tone harmonics the violin can provide. Is it a message of angelic hope? Whether this work succeeds as a “charge for those who still stand righteous and strong to fight back and never back down” is for each listenter to determine. Ms Koh calls this work a surreptitious “concerto for superbass and percussion”.
New York Concert Review