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Composed: 1970

Length: c. 13 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = alto flute & piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cowbell, small chime cymbal, mark tree, rain stick, shaker, tambourine, tam-tam, triangle), harp, strings, and solo jazz ensemble

About this Piece

Ostinato: Suite for Angela is the first track on Hancock’s 1971 album Mwandishi, a Swahili word meaning “writer” or “composer” that Hancock used for himself and as the name of his sextet. The work is dedicated to political activist Angela Davis, who was in prison at the time.

“I wanted to write a tune with an underlying rock beat, but using it in a more open way than usual,” Hancock says in Bob Gluck’s book about Hancock and the Mwandishi band. “I finally achieved it by making the number of beats uneven – it’s in 15/8, one bar of 4/4 and one of 7/8. I started with a repeated syncopated bass line in 4/4, a regular thing. The way I chose the notes in the riff was that I figured most of the rock bass lines telegraph their chord so distinctly that there’s no escaping it. I wrote something that could imply many chords... some fourths even, like Trane and McCoy... a kind of pentatonic scale, but starting on a different degree of that scale.”

“But then I thought, ‘Why should I keep that all the way through?’ so I changed it slightly and shortened every second phrase by half a beat. Now if, instead of two 4/4 bars, I had a 4/4 and a 7/8, it meant I had to change the notes to make them sound natural. Having done that, I had to decide what to put on top, and what it is, is different degrees of tension and release. Music and life flow because of those qualities, as do all the senses. It’s contrast: to know what cold water is, you have to know what hot water is. Music’s like that; it has to flow, and if there’s no tension and release it will be totally bland, with no vitality. ... Having 15 beats in a bar automatically sets up a little tension, because just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it eludes you. At the end of each bar we all hit a phrase together, and that’s a release. That’s also true of harmony. Very little of the music is consonant, but the dissonance varies so greatly that it’s a matter of some of it being less dissonant and thus becoming consonant by comparison.”