Caduceus Mixtus by Jaron Lanier

Caduceus Mixtus for Serpent and Ophicleide by Jaron Lanier

Dedicated to the memory of Gunther Schuller

Premiered at the 2017 HBS 3rd International Historic Brass Symposium, NYC
Douglas Yeo, serpent, and Scott Robinson, ophicleide

Jaron Lanier wrote the following notes for the premier concert

Notes on Caduceus Mixtus by Jaron Lanier

(Dedicated to Gunther Schuller)

This is a duet for two obscure instruments; serpent and ophicleide. It can be played with the two horns only, or with a rhythmic accompaniment. (This is why some passages are notated as syncopated. Brazilian percussion might be considered for reasons that will be explained.)

The overwhelming factor in my life during the time I wrote this score was that my wife was battling cancer. We would often find ourselves waiting in places like hospital pharmacies which were adorned with the caduceus symbol. One of the places had a caduceus inside a key! (Ophicleide means “keyed serpent.”) That made me remember a biologist friend from long ago who studied a phenomenon seen around the world, but mostly in Brazil. Snakes of different species will on rare occasions intertwine for extended periods, and display motion unlike that observed in fighting or mating. One possibility is that this is a coincidental glitch, but another idea is that it as an example of inter-species cooperation. Maybe, for instance, the snakes are sharing information (through chemical traces) about changing threats and resources in the environment.

This is a piece about cooperation between presumably eccentric players who have opted to take on difficult, archaic instruments. I learned to play each instrument passably before writing this duet. When I started my practice on the serpent, my daughter would run from the room. (The instrument had once been famously described as a "drain pipe with dysentery.”) As I gained passable skills, she complained. “Now it just sounds like an instrument.” Once I could play it, I could no longer access the bizarre, rude sounds that I have not heard elsewhere. I did find, however, certain kinds of phrases that I enjoyed playing on both instruments, and these form the basis of the duet.

The surviving images of period players fascinate me. They are always costumed. The serpent wasn’t played by a peasant in a barn, like a fiddle. It was played in a church, and the player was robed, maybe even winged. The ophicleide was often played in military bands, and the players were decorated like dandy parrots.

In each case, the music accompanied a march into the unknown, and the armor was nothing but style. Given this history, I decided the piece would have no repeats, and would not end in a lofty finale. It would have a sense of drive, but also an uncertain destination. Gunther Schuller was originally supposed to have written this duet, but he died from leukemia before he was able to do so. I met Gunther a few times in the 1990s, through Ornette Coleman and Sue Mingus. What an astonishing musician. He was one of the crucial bridges in American music, between the jazz and classical traditions. He was one of those intertwined snakes.

It is an honor to dedicate this piece to Gunther.

In addition to being an active composer, performer and instrument collector, Jaron Lanier is a prominent computer scientist and futurist who, among many other accomplishments, is credited with coining the phrase “virtual reality” and has done ground-breaking work in that field. He has been named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.