Tales (Tails) of the Signifying Monkey is inspired by a fable from African folklore. A monkey sits in a tree and teases a predatory lion. The fable is symbolic of the monkey as trickster, able by guile and intelligence to control the more powerful lion. The story resonates with the story of African –American slavery. Although he is always aware of the power and oppression around him, he uses the weapons of irony (signifying) in order to survive. Words, humor and music are the tools of sustaining identity and culture.
Tales (Tails) of the Signifying Monkey is the third and final work in a trilogy of orchestral compositions. The trilogy began with Esu Variations, which premiered in 1995 and was continued in Jacobs Ladder, which premiered in 1997. All three pieces explore thematic material from my opera Amistad, which premiered in 1997. Musical themes in my work have a life of their own. They reappear as old, distorted friends, filled with personal symbolism. To me, they always have character and personality apart form their initial inspiration. All three orchestral works are structurally related and they can be performed as three-movement symphony.
This orchestral work begins with a syncopated ostinato in the trombones. This riff recurs as a motif for the “Trickster.” The strings and woodwinds introduce the Trickster dance motif, which plays against the trombone ostinato. This sixteenth-note melody has a chromatic quality, rising and falling in half steps followed by leaps. The ostinato modulates into the bassoons as the melodic material becomes more spare, dancing among the woodwinds, oboe, English horn, and, later, clarinets. The dance section finally concludes with a rhythmic ostinato in 11/8.
The second section evoked the ocean. The cellos and bass clarinet play a floating ostinato that recalls the shuffle of the blues. The section modulates from C to B-flat, back to C, and, finally, on a D pedal. Another ocean motif with flutes, con sordino (muted) strings and harp leads us back to the Trickster motif plated by the bassoons, with the melody in the violas. The dance evolves with the ostinato now in the cellos and basses and the melody spinning between woodwinds and trumpets.
Another slow section, recalling the opening of Jacob's Ladder, intervenes over a C pedal that ends with chromatic chords in the brass. Another dance begins with trades between the violas and cellos, and the flutes and violins. A waltz in 11/8 follows with the melody played by the trombone before returning to the Trickster motif in the trombones and tuba. The trickster motif modulates to the bassoons and basses before the entrance of the horns, which evokes the last section Esu Variations. A brutal ostinato in 13/8 begins the climax of the piece, with the Trickster’s Dance melody playing in the strings in its most realized fugal form. The horn harmonies played earlier in the section return in the violas and violin with an eerie melody in the bassoons, and later in the trombone the waltz motif, now in 7/4, interceded before the climactic return of the horn motif with the trombones and trumpets clashing against the horn harmonies
Tales (Tails) of the Signifying Monkey concludes with the return blues shuffle underneath an ocean motif. A final visit by the Trickster riff ends the piece.