The Sensuous Terrain (2010)


A New Work for Piano, Clarinet, Violin, Cello, & 2 Percussionists

Click to download PDF of full score

Click here to hear the world premiere by the SOLI Chamber Ensemble


Click to download dissertation on the piece


Some thoughts on the composition:

The Sensuous Terrain is a set of character pieces for violin, clarinet, piano, cello and two percussionists. The goal of the work is a hybrid, or reconciliation, of Sufi devotional music and Western, jazz-inspired impulses and continues my interests in weaving pop idioms through a post-modernist canvas. It is also reflective of my ongoing research and exploration of the application of extended graphic design to score mechanics.

The work is inspired by the melodic structures, phrasing and voice-exchange concepts found in the music of the late Pakistani composer and singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The preliminary plans for the piece included the piano prepared to mimic the sounds of traditional Middle Eastern percussion instruments such as the dumbek, a tabla-like instrument. This idea quickly evolved into the incorporation of two percussionists whose parts consist mostly of Middle Eastern instruments or their closest Western equivalents. These percussion parts, which are notated in a purely Western style and evoke many traditional Middle Eastern rhythmic modes and patterns, are symbolic of the aforementioned “reconciliation” of the Eastern and Western styles found in the piece.

The narrative of the work is loosely governed by the writings of philosopher of ecology, David Abram. The title, The Sensuous Terrain, comes from the publisher’s annotation of the Abram book, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. In his writings he proposes that mankind, by way of an ever-intruding presence of science in our daily lives, has lost contact with the intimate relationship that Homo sapiens once had with their environment. He illustrates this in a number of logical and deeply moving ways. I have taken on a few of these illustrations as cues for the development of some of the movements of the work.

In Middle Eastern musical experience, the term tarab refers to a state of transcendence that a performer and audience reach together during a performance and is a necessary ingredient of Middle Eastern devotional music. I will often reach what feels like an analogy to tarab while running in the wilderness, listening to my iPod. Perhaps it’s runner’s high experienced in a musical context. Perhaps it’s something else. It is quite euphoric and often reveals the answers to such aesthetic inquiries. It almost always results in a confluence of the many materials I have loaded on my iPod at the point of my own personal tarab. In such moments, the materials begin to run together, overlap, then blend into a kind of cerebral mosaic, as if the “speaking world”, in the words of Abram, is providing the answers. Ambitious as it seemed at the time, a chamber music realization of this particular confluence of ecological philosophy, Sufist devotional music, jazz and the autobiographical Zappa solo (I was in the audience in Austin, 1975, when Bongo Fury was recorded) felt more than ideal.

The current religious, political and ideological struggles between East and West only helped to galvanize the idea. But, I hasten to add that The Sensuous Terrain is not a political statement but rather a contemplation on how the two worlds might coexist in musical space; a meditation on their similarities and a celebration of their differences. I hope you enjoy the piece half as much I enjoyed writing it.

Jack W Stamps

San Antonio, Texas,

March 1st, 2010