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Von Hansen on making music using the sounds of his father’s last days

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Torin Andersen
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KMUW

"It's a piece about loss. I mean, it's about the, the loss of my dad. My dad never wanted to die in a hospital, but he ended up on, uh, like a breathing machine, like a ventilator at the end of his life, so we were able to do hospice and take him home. 

"He was in one room and the compressors are in another. There's a big tube, so he could go around the house. And so I heard the sound of these machines turning on. And I, you know, well, this is an interesting sound and there's this connection to my dad. I'm gonna record this, maybe sometime I'll use this. And so I recorded the sound, it makes a beep. And then there’s this, it almost sounds like a motorcycle engine in there. And then you hear a (hiss), where one breathes, and then (hiss) the other one breathes.

"The piece actually starts with a minute of that recording. You hear the button turn on and it beeps. And then a bass drum roll starts, which is kind of the rumbling of the engine type sound. And then as the track is fading, there are two sizzle symbols, which is a symbol with some rivets in it that when you hit it, it jingles and it keeps going, which kind of sounds like breath. And those are on either side of the stage. And so through the entire piece, those keep going back and forth.

"More instruments enter so that the bass drum stops. And then there are a bunch of different mallet instruments, marimbas and crotales and bells and all these, um, percussion instruments and a piano. These sparkling sounds. So they hit one chord all together, but then everybody plays a different rhythm on those chords of the note and they fade out. And then the, there are four marimba players who come in and they're doing, uh, what's called a shepard tone, um, which is a audio illusion that it makes, it's a tone that always sounds like it's rising, just rises and rises and rises until there's a big hit and everybody comes back in.

"And then there's this big, um, ecstatic ending that has the melody over the top and these big chords and just sparkles and the sizzle cymbals and bass drum hits until it builds up to this big climax. And then they dissipate. And then there's just a vibraphone and copper pipes. And the copper pipes represent my dad's voice in this piece. And so the breathing machine stops, and there's one last statement from him on the copper pipes just kind of fading off into the ether. To me, the vibraphone is me and the copper pipes are my dad. And it’s kind of this conversation and this conversation we have throughout the piece. 

"This piece went somewhere different than I thought it was gonna go. So, um, being five years out, I think it gave me a little bit more, um, perspective. But as I was going back and listening to the recordings, I found myself just being really thankful for the technology, allowing my dad to pass the way that he wanted to. And for my having time with him at the end, and basically the important people in his life being able to say goodbye. It's still very emotional. It's not just sad. It has a lot of, a lot more texture and depth to the emotions. 

"My dad loved Frank Zappa's Joe's Garage. It's my desert island song, uh, “Watermelon In Easter Hay” by Frank Zappa. Anytime that, uh, my brother or I hear that, that is the song that we associate the most with my dad. So I quoted “Watermelon In Easter Hay” in this piece. It's a nice little joke to me and like, you know, uh, from beyond the grave, a joke to my dad. 

"The title of the piece is “Mortal Coil”. So, my dad wrote his own obituary. He wrote, “I want to let the people I know and were close to and also knew, but chose not to associate with or they with me, that I have left this mortal coil. In lieu of flowers, or I am glad you are gone, you old reprobate, please make a donation to your local public radio or TV station and then actually watch PBS or listen to NPR occasionally.” 

"This piece was commissioned by Central Michigan University, which is where I did my master's. My teacher, who is my greatest mentor as a musician, he's retiring this year. So this will be on the final concert he will ever conduct. And it's actually going to be the last piece on the last concert he's going to conduct. And I'm creating this piece for him as well. And then since it's his last concert, all of the alumni, all my friends I went to school and people who that were before me and after. I want this, I wanted this to be a real strong representation of my writing and to mean something. Um, and I'm, I'm really happy with what came out. "

He has more than 20 years of experience shaping and documenting the arts in Wichita.