Martin G. Georgiev


Multimedia Web Presentation

based on

Tradition and Innovation in my Music

PhD Thesis

Royal Academy of Music

University of London


containing the theoretical text with relevant excerpts from the scores and sound recordings



7. Apocalyptic Passacaglia on a Theme by John Cage

‘rhythm box rhythm’, Fibonacci, Fontana, visuals, silence, cuts, war

This piece for Snare Drum solo and optional video piece was commissioned by PENDIM 2009 International Competition for Percussionists in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, where it was a set piece for the first round in the eldest age group. It was premiered at that competition, and there was a pre-premiere performance by Sarah Cresswell at the Royal Academy of Music, London. The piece was published by HoneyRock USA and received performances across Europe, North and South America, and Asia. It is the most often performed work of mine overall up to date.

In terms of chronology, it is the earliest work in this thesis, and ideas from it found their way across all works that followed.

The theme by John Cage, upon which the Passacaglia was composed, is from 4’33’’. Cage considered that piece to be a structured duration in which any possible unintentional sounds from the ambience of the hall and from the audience become part of the music.158 (click)  Thus it is not just 4’33’’ of silence. It would have been impossible for me to compose a Passacaglia upon silence, because silence would cease to exist if anything is played over it. Therefore it cannot be a basso ostinato, which a Passacaglia theme must be.

But considering Cage’s theme as structured duration, the rests notated on the bottom stave in my Passacaglia are indeed Cage’s theme, sounding as a basso ostinato across the thirteen units of the piece (each lasting thirteen bars), which are respectively – the theme (on its own) and twelve variations. There might be a paradox here, because if any sound emerging during Cage’s piece is part of the music, then my counterpoint for the Snare Drum would also be part of it, rather than a counterpoint. On the other hand, if we are to accept that Cage meant only unintentional sounds to be part of his piece, then the theme is separate from the counterpoint in my piece, and does exist as a basso ostinato both when it is left on its own (in the beginning and towards the end of my piece), and when my counterpoint is played over it. There will still be unintentional sounds in the hall, although those might not be heard when the loudest passages of my counterpoint are played. Although I would not like to resolve this paradox completely, these facts indicate that my work is a true Passacaglia, albeit a paradoxical one, and not just a play on words.

The metrical grid which runs through the Passacaglia, as notated on the top stave, (Example 29) does not come directly from Cage’s piece. However, as his work is a ‘structured duration’, my elaboration of the internal structuring of that duration is not illogical or contradictory. This metric grid has an important function for the Passacaglia, as it is identical for each of the thirteen units, thus making the segmentation of the work into theme and variations perceptible. Although when the work is played without the video the metric grid is perceptible only by the performer, when it is played with the video, the rhythm of the grid is immediately visible for the audience. In the video a series of images blink across background darkness. Every image is exposed for the duration of only two frames,159 (click)  which is important in two ways. First – this makes the visual effect of the images blinking in darkness similar to a percussion sound, so the rhythm of the grid is delivered prominently, albeit through vision and not sound. Second – these images are extremely graphic and it is an important artistic choice to reveal them only to the point that their content is just about noticed, because otherwise they are extremely disturbing upon prolonged observation (Example 29, video excerpt available).

Thus in a performance with the video, the audience would be presented with two main rhythmic strata – one from the video and one from the performer.

The structure of the rhythmic/metric grid for each of the thirteen structural units is the following:


Figure 32: Apocalyptic Passacaglia on a Theme by John Cage, bars 1-13.

Metric unit structure – identical for all 13 units.


This is the same kind of irregular rhythmic structuring that is typical for the Bulgarian folk dances, as described in the previous chapter (6.1) with further relevance to the concept of morphing rhythm in Chapter 3.1. There are a number of metric modulations in this structure, as designated by arrows in Figure 32. The first one is a result of the switch in the main metrical unit – the chronos protos.160 (click)  In the first five bars the chronos protos is the eight-note, upon which diverse irregular meters are constructed – 10/8, 7/8, 11/8. In the sixth bar the chronos protos switches to the sixteenth-note and upon that level similar irregular meters are constructed, but these are 3/16, 8/16 and so on (although some of them are broken up, and binary ones grouped in 4/8, 3/8 etc. for players’ convenience in reading). The irregular meters created upon the sixteenth-note chronos protos appear as twice as fast as the ones with eight-note chronos protos. In the eleventh bar the chronos protos switches back to eight-note and regular meter is created upon it, which then is transformed by proportional elongation in the following bar – an eight-note is added to each of the three beats. The last bar is a very rapid change to irregularity which creates a very marked start for the next repetition of the overall metric structure (next Variation) and has some psychological implications for performance.

Another structural principle runs across the piece and governs all rim-shots,161 (click)  including the very first rim-shot that frames the piece (but should logically not be there as an intentional sound in the theme (because Cage’s theme consists of unintentional sounds only)). That is the principle of a ‘cut’ or ‘incision’. The inspiration for this device came for me from the artwork of Italian artist Lucio Fontana. Shortly before composing this work I saw a couple of his works – Nature and some works of the Spatial Concept cycle which are exhibited at the Tate Modern gallery in London. They consist of simple forms or even just blank canvases, upon which cuts are inflicted. The dramatic impact of this device deeply impressed me and I implanted it into my work immediately, as a musical device, as it is particularly fitting with the content and aesthetics of the Apocalyptic Passacaglia...

In the context of Apocalyptic Passacaglia... that is implemented through a series of loud, piercing rim-shots which cut through the whole of the piece. In the first two thirds of the work the positioning of the rim-shots in the music structure is governed by a Fibonacci sequence which is reversed. Thus every next rim-shot comes sooner than the previous one, until they compress into a rapid sequence which suddenly disappears into a black hole of silence in the golden section area of the piece. It is as if we have been travelling through a whirlpool which finally whirled us into this black hole, while at every following cycle of the whirlpool we were hit by a painful rim-shot incision.

In the focal point of silence, in the golden section of the piece, a passage from a Latin Requiem prayer is whispered. I conceptualised this device as an amplification of a hidden property of Cage’s theme – he initially planned to title his 4’33’’ piece Silent Prayer.162 (click)  The way I musicalised this prayer in my piece is also subtly influenced by Verdi’s Requiem.

What follows from Unit 10 onwards is a passage in which the rim-shots are not governed by any strict principle and their use resembles something savage, particularly contrasting to their controlled, systematic use through the Fibonacci sequence in the preceding section of the piece.

A more peculiar employment of Fibonacci sequence is also the structuring of sound events in the first three units of the piece (page 1-2: the Theme and the first two variations). The first sequence of sound events contains a single event – the initial rim shot. The second sequence – two events, the third – three events, the fourth sequence – five events, and thus their number increases, as according to a Fibonacci sequence. Short motifs gradually start to form and reoccur within those sequences of sound events, which motifs start to function as ‘sound objects’ from unit four onwards. Around these nuclei further elaborations are constructed, until a holistic rhythm is formed from unit six onwards. It is a rhythm that becomes increasingly mechanical – it starts to resemble the rhythms of a rhythm box. It also recalls military drumming, which evokes somewhat primitive associations stemming from the specific sounds of the drum played without the snares. After the progressive build-up into the golden section blackout, the snares are turned on straight after that eloquent silence, and in a sudden interruption of the whispered text, which both increases considerably the overall volume of the instrument and makes the military associations even more prominent. The rhythm becomes even more machine-like, which combined with the ‘savage’ use of rim-shots creates a violent image, both wild and controlled, which perhaps points towards certain ‘sadistic’ associations. There is a blink from Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, which is then swiftly drawn into a whirlpool of violent rim-shots. The ‘theme’ is left to ‘sound’ on its own at the very end (page 7 of the score), as if asking rhetorical questions, interrupted by a final eruption of violence (variation XII), until a final rim-shot delivers the terminal blow.

The images constituting the video are photos from war fields, terrorist acts, genocide, concentration camps, famine and some other images that are included by me as another kind of rhetorical questions. There are two videos that I made: the first is included within the thesis (and not published at this point), and the second was published by HoneyRock as part of the score (Example 29). As the copyright for publishing some images in the first video was too expensive to obtain, I had to substitute them with public domain photos in order to publish the work with a videoscape included. The first video is, if not more impressive, certainly more contemporary by content, but it cannot be published or performed in public in the next 50 years or so, unless a copyright solution emerges by that time. (The performers are also permitted to create their own videos based on the same rhythmic principles, as mentioned in the published score.)

All photos in both versions of the video that I created are real life footage, from 9/11, 7/7, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Beslan, Yugoslavia and Serbia, Oklahoma, Madrid, Africa, World Wars I and II... The process of research and selection of the images and the composition of the video was one of the most intensely traumatising experiences in my life. It was also a form of prayer for all these victims.

The memory of these images left deep imprints in the aesthetics of The Mirror, reappearing in many other works, particularly the String Quartet, bb. 61-136 (Example 28), the rhythmic passages in the last movement of the Third Percussion Concerto (Example 30), and even more so in the first movement of the Second Percussion Concerto.

The mechanistic ‘rhythm box rhythm’ became a prototype for the rhythms of Life in The Mirror (Example 12: letters UU-WW) and reappeared in the violent rhythmic passages in the Percussion Concertos and the String Quartet (bb. 41-121: Example 28) described above.

The ‘cuts’ became a significant structural device throughout my work. Their more obvious implementation is evident in the form of abrupt ‘hits’ in The Mirror: Scene 2 (Example 11); String Quartet No.1 bb. 63, 119-165 (in altered form) (Example 28); and the last movement of the Third Percussion Concerto (Example 30).

Meanwhile, in Two Pieces for Violin and Piano (later: Triptych for Violin and Piano) (not included with the thesis) the texture is cut by using silence. Thus the ‘cuts’ were transformed into ‘silent cuts’ in that piece and this kind of ‘cutting silence’ became an important structural device in the String Quartet, Second and Third Percussion Concertos (Example 30).


7.1.Implications on musical form

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