Birth of a Notion

2 July 2015

What is the source of inspiration? Do we find inspiration, or does inspiration find us?

For me, inspiration can come from a compelling message from a text, a fascination with a particular instrument or group of instruments, or — best of all — a commission.

Recently, however, inspiration came to me from a most unlikely source: a wisecrack.

On June 26, 2015, The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, a 5-4 vote in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. This was big news, and it created quite a stir on Facebook and all over social media. I got into the spirit, and posted a status update that said, “In honor of today’s Supreme Court decision, my next piece will be in 5/4 time.”

That remark went over very well. It got over 110 “likes” in about a day.

A day later I was out taking a bike ride. I get some of my best, and craziest ideas on bike rides. Most of my thoughts on this ride centered around “Why not write a short, festive piece in 5/4 time to celebrate this landmark decision?” I remembered a tune I concocted while still a teenager, and that was indeed in 5/4 time — no doubt heavily influenced by Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” and Lalo Schifrin’s theme music for “Mission Impossible,” both very popular back in the day — and it was energetic and cheeky, exactly the right tone for this occasion, some forty years later.

My first idea for a title was “Uneven Steven,” but I soon rejected that for two reasons.

1) I didn’t want the title to be about me, and
2) a quick search on Google showed that “Uneven Steven” had already been used by a blues band and a DJ/rapper, among others.

I thought of the colorful phraseology used by Justice Antonin Scalia in his recent dissents, and the term “Jiggery Pokery” had a nice rhythm to it. Of course, Justice Scalia used “Jiggery Pokery” in his dissent on the Affordable Care Act (Burwell v. King), not the same-sex marriange decision. It also seemed a little perverse to celebrate a milestone of social equality by writing in an uneven meter, but in both of these considerations my heart won out over my head; sometimes an idea can be right without being logical.

So, Jiggery Pokery it would be, in 5/4 time. As I hummed the tune and timed it, to arrive at a metronome marking, I discovered that the tempo was quarter-note = 180. [British musicians use the term “crotchet” for what we Americans call a quarter-note, and I think you’ll agree that Justice Scalia was being very crotchety in his dissents] I like the fact that the tempo was 180. 180 is 10 x “chai” (the Hebrew word for “life,” and the numerical value of its letters add up to 18), and 180º is a complete about-face. The country had just made a complete 180 (there are still some stragglers resisting this change, but I have faith that they’ll catch up with the rest of us eventually) so 180 was a very appropriate tempo. I pushed this even further by adding the phrase “Tempo giusto” to the marking; “giusto” is the Italian word for “just.” Usually you use this word to indicate that you want the music played in strict time, no speeding up or slowing down, but “giusto” shares its Latin root with “Justice,” which indicates what’s fair and right as well as the person appointed to wear a robe and interpret our laws.

I knew I wanted the piece’s duration to be somewhere between three and four minutes. After all, “brevity is the soul of wit.” Using my (limited) skills in math, I determined that I’d need to write no fewer than 108 measures (3 minutes) and no more than 144 (4 minutes). When the piece was finished (in about 3 days, which is very fast for me) it comprised 128 measures, with a running time of 3:33. (3+3+3 = 9, as in 9 Supreme Court Justices!)

I am hoping that Jiggery Pokery gets heard soon, played by live humans on real instruments. When that happens, I’ll post a link to a recording, assuming I’m lucky enough to get one. In the meantime, here’s the MIDI version:


UPDATE: 29 October 2016 - Jiggery Pokery has indeed been played by live humans on real instruments. The humans in question are the Madison String Quartet, and I’ve just added a recording of their performance on the page for Jiggery Pokery. Check it out!