for Oboe and Sinfonietta
The Mpingo tree native to South Africa and is often referred to as “African Blackwood” or “Grenadilla” wood. Because the wood is one of the densest and most durable on planet earth, it is harvested and used to make many different woodwind instruments, and it is the most common type of wood used as the bore for the oboe. My concerto explores the unique qualities of the oboe as the uniquely beautiful musical qualities of the tree that it is made from.
Due to its high density and deep black/sometimes purple color, African artists use grenadilla wood to carve intricate wood statues and sculptures. In the first movement of my concerto, the oboe soloist tentatively cuts out grooves into silence and gradually inspires the rest of the ensemble to join. The soloist explores all of the unique and most colorful sounds that the oboe is able to produce including multiphonics, timbral trills, and slap tonguing. The ensemble then returns the favor in cutting out “grooves” of silence into the texture to let the oboe etch its mark in a playful quirky dance to open the concerto.
It may take up to 75 to 100 years for the Mpingo tree to grow large enough to make a musical instrument. It is said that in order to find if a tree is ready to be harvested, the farmers will strike the Mpingo with a large wooden branch. If the tree resonates in a certain way, it is believed that there is enough blackwood inside to create an oboe. The second movement of my concerto, “Grove” is from the perspective of an ancient tree that is ready to be harvested to become a musical instrument. The Mpingo tree also exists as a home for many animals in the African ecosystem, and this movement alternates between the sounds of the undergrowth coming life and the resonant song of the Mpingo that is ready to be harvested.
Mpingo trees have evolved to withstand the extremely harsh conditions and climate of South Africa. Because water is so sparse, the trees compete for resources with one another, and often they must grow miles and miles apart from one another in order to survive to maturity. In recent years, the demand to build musical instruments has been so high that often farmers must resort to clear cutting entire forests before they have reached peak maturity, resulting in serious deforestation and depletion of natural resources. Additionally, the high temperatures where Mpingo trees grow are often met with uncontrolled forest fires that sweep across the plains at alarming rates. The bark of mature Mpingo trees have the amazing ability to withstand fire, but if the older trees are all harvested, the young Mpingo can be damaged beyond use for musical instruments, not to mention the irreversible destruction caused to the ecosystems of these areas. The third movement “Grieve” casts the solo oboist as a dying Mpingo tree, crying out and raging against the other musicians who are the sweeping forest fire that consume it.
Indeed the only way that the grief of the loss for the Mpingo in the third movement can be remedied is through regeneration and planting more trees. Perhaps the best way to make this kind of change is through education about the importance and value of these trees both on the concert hall stage and also in the plains of South Africa. The fourth movement “Grow” offers my hopeful epilogue--in order to conserve and preserve this essential natural resource, we must grow as a community and allow for growth of new trees as well. The Mpingo teaches us many lessons, among them: to be patient with the slow process of growth, and, value the coexistence for which our human world relies on natural resources in an era of constant advancement. Above all, however, the Mpingo teaches us that in order for the tree to be harvested so that it may live the rest of its life serving the world as a musical instrument, we must first learn to listen to its song