“Old MacDonald's Yellow Submarine is an exploration of sounds with which I've been fascinated since childhood. Its varied sections range from nostalgic and wistful to playful and cheeky, drawing on influences as diverse as John Cage and John Lee Hooker.” – Erik Griswold
Erik Griswold is a composer who revels in discovering new sounds with an inventiveness and playfulness that are both disarming and contagious. This charming fifteen-minute suite for toy piano, music boxes, and “miscellaneous bits” invites the listener into a world of childlike imagination. It's filled with found objects, playroom noises, and miniature instruments that open tiny memory boxes in our brain.
Inasmuch as this is a thoroughly notated composition in which the composer gives clear directions as to intent and instrumention, the performer still has room to find the “right" sounds for each piece. This leaves open the door to much fun and creative input, and also guarantees that no two performances or even repeat performances by the same person need be the same. Approaching a piece like this is akin to walking into a toy store and picking out your favorite baubles. Except, this particular toy store is whatever you can conjure up from the quirky depths of your imagination. My own exploration with it – in it – went through different stages: some wild goose chases, much trial and error, memorization, and a couple of “Eureka!” moments.
For my first performance of this work, I enlisted the help of a wood-worker friend to make music boxes, tried ten different toy horns, amassed train whistles, emergency whistles, sports whistles, and samba whistles (the winner), experimented with a zoo of squawking rubber animals, started with two, then settled on three toy pianos, two of which have modified tines and hammers, extracted the tines of a fourth piano to play in the open with a bicycle hex wrench no.4, tried a dozen wood blocks and chimes with various wooden and metal sticks until deciding bamboo chopsticks gave the sound and flexibility I wanted. In the process, I learned that pet toys make good noisemakers, tines are extremely delicate, band-aids and rubber bands are more than they seem, and anything in the house is a potential musical instrument at any given moment.
“I arrived at the title of the suite, a conjunction of Old MacDonald had a farm and Yellow Submarine, when I took the tines (or melody) of one music box and crossed them with the barrel (or rhythm) of another to produce the surprising hybrids heard in the sixth movement. (The third movement similarly combines the pitches of The Pink Panther with the rhythm of Memories).“ – Erik Griswold
Griswold doesn’t just quote childhood tunes and familiar songs, he mashes them up to create new melodies like old memories, true at the core, beautifully ravaged by time. I think you’ll recognize some fragments here and there, but don’t work too hard trying to hear them, let them come to you.
There may be something odd and a little absurd about a grown person crouching in front of child’s toys making incongruous sounds — odd, and utterly liberating. The alchemy of small objects, experimentation, and sounds reminiscent of many facets of our childhood, creates a prolonged magical moment in which disbelief is suspended as one takes one's seat for a tour on the Griswoldian Yellow Submarine.