• Keith Pray

The Gate: A Portrait of the Mohawk

In 2007 I was commissioned by the Empire Jazz Orchestra to write the "composition I always wanted to write" composing a piece for the group. I had six months to make it happen and decided to write my magnum opus! I quickly decided to do a semi programatic work about the Schenectady, NY area (home of the Empire Jazz Orchestra). I researched the area and learned that Schenectady was a derivative of a Mohawk word that meant "Beyond the pines" or "the gate". This peaked my curiosity as I have Mohawk ancestry and life kept bringing me back to Schenectady even though I grew up 2 1/2 hours away. I decided to have 3 sections, a more pre-human look at nature in the area, a section that embraced the native presence and all the history that comes with that (the good and the bad) and finally a modern era section to reflect the 20th century history of the city. All great ideas, but where do I begin?!!!

Well 3 months went by and I had a pile of ideas on scraps of paper that weren't "worthy", four months and I was getting stressed and had more scraps but no magnum opus. I went through all of the scraps and realized the composition was all there! The fragments all fit together and all I had to do was accept it! I had dismissed all of the fragments as they weren't "complex enough" or "would be better for something else". I realized in that moment that I could not write something that wasn't coming from who I was at the time. I wasn't going to re-invent the wheel (even though that's what I wanted to do).

As I started putting it together (still had to organize it and orchestrate it for the ensemble), I wanted to utilize the instruments of the ensemble creating interesting textures and colors. As I sat at my desk one night in August (a few weeks from the first rehearsal!) I was trying to come up with some percussion ideas when I heard this beetle sound outside. It created this short rhythm. Three notes and then space, three notes and space, etc. I realized it fit perfect!

In the end I got everything complete just in time and the band did a great job performing it! I had not mentioned anything about the concept of the piece to the audience and afterwards a woman came up to me and described almost exactly what my intention was, including each section! I guess we all get lucky one in a while. I hope you enjoy it! To listen, CLICK HERE


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