A Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra
The work is Thum Prints, and the beatboxer is Tom Thum, a magnificently-talented dude with an inexhaustible vocal inventory of glorious and weird noises.
Beatboxers, unlike singers (a distinct though related instrument!) are not limited to a single line. They can use their larynx, lips and tongue independently. Tom's grooves often are made of polyphonic layers of pitched and un-pitched noise that you would imagine are emerging from two or three different drum machines.
If Tom already has an "orchestra inside his mouth" *, why add a real-life orchestra? Successful concertos combine two (or more) sound forces that are already “complete” in their own ways. Pianos, cellos, violins, concertinos (and beatboxers) all can make a full musical texture on their own. The use of the orchestra is not just to accompany, but to set an equal and opposing force against the soloist.
In real life, Tom is like a hyperactive drum kit (that can play itself): constant outbursts of noise! I wrote a short movement inspired by this constant flow of sonic goop: Severe Sonic Tourettes. It's built upon an atonal tone row; Tom’s fresh sound-palette gives us license to use dissonance. I was shocked and delighted at the premiere with QSO: the audience (of mostly Tom's fans) applauded at the special effects during the music, apparently not noticing – or objecting to – its atonality.
For some pieces in Thum Prints, Tom brought an idea to me around which I’ve wrapped orchestral music. For other parts, I have composed for sampled drum-kit and orchestra, then asked him to develop and improve the ideas. Other parts were composed in direct collaboration: In Ivory and Snake Oil, for example, Tom found a few chords on an (out-of-tune) piano; he recorded me improvising on these chords, and then aggressively edited my improvisation, reconstructing it into a song with beatboxing and lyrics about a cocaine dealer. I then adapted it for orchestra, adding extra material and embellishing the harmony.
Tom and I both delight in smoothing together his unholy mouth with grotesque, rhythmic and lush orchestral effects. This is music that neither of us could have written on our own!
* not literally; that would be awkward for everyone.