Island Music

Works for 2-6 Players | 2003

Island Music began on my first trip to Bali. Lying around our house in the village of Sian were wooden instruments belonging to the local gamelan. I couldn’t resist the opportunity of improvising on them and soon evolved a bouncy little tune which became the main theme of Island Music. Everything in the piece comes from development of this tune.

The musical language of the piece “drifts” back and forth between the islands of Indonesia and the Caribbean, stopping along the way in the United States.

The piece is in the form of a rondo—a shape much favored by Schubert in his four-hand piano pieces. The form of a rondo is ABACADAE, etc. The A theme is the perky little vacation tune, and the BCD etc. music represents distracting or vexing thoughts of day-to-day or life problems that one is trying to get rid of while on vacation. Gradually, these distracting thoughts begin to affect the happy vacation tune, eventually completely changing and stopping it. Then the decision is made to work back to the tune and recover its energy and optimism.

The introduction, “Long Familiar Refrains,” presents a meditative improvisation for the soloists on a melancholy reflection of the main tune, which bears a resemblance to the kind of half-heard melodies my father used to hum.

Part I, which is called “Thoughts on the Dance Floor,” introduces the main theme and its dialogues within the contrasting materials. The title of this section recalls my house in Bali (which was also a dance pavilion) and also the kind of wandering thoughts that I have always found are a part of the dance club experience.

Part II, “In the Clearing,” imagines a break in the dancing. The music gradually becomes more moody as it remembers, praises, and laments the spirits of those who are sadly no longer with us on the dance floor. The music becomes more and more lyrical until it dissolves into arabesques.

Part III, “Ride Outs,” encourages the soloists to lead the ensemble back to the original happy form of the tune with which it began. There then follows a coda, very much indebted to both Beethoven and James Brown, which brings the piece to a jubilant conclusion.

The piece, originally conceived as a small solo, grew into its present shape with the encouragement of Nancy Zeltsman. Her beautiful marimba playing, especially in the low part of the instrument, was an inspiration. Also, Jack Van Geem’s virtuosic stamina pushed me on toward creating this piece, which is definitely a tour de force. I hope that listeners will hear Island Music as a reflection of the music traditions of both East and West and as an opportunity to enjoy the flexible and musical Schubert-inspired situations that I have enjoyed creating for percussion ensemble.


Category: Works for 2-6 Players

Year Composed: 2003

Duration: 28 Minutes

Orchestration: 2 "solo" mba, 2 "tutti" mba, 2 perc

Publisher: Kongcha

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Past Performances

December 12, 2016

Cleveland Institute of Music Percussion Ensemble

July 8, 2011

Zeltsman Marimba Festival

May 3, 2010

Cleveland Institute of Music

February 3, 2006

New Haven, CT

For more information about the Michael’s compositions, please visit

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