Notes on Will You Miss Me
(excerpted and adapted from article written for 1/1, The Journal of the Just Intonation Network, 2006)
Will You Miss Me was written in 1979 in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where I was, for a very short time, a graduate student in composition and Ben Johnston’s research assistant. I wrote it as a class presentation in Ben tuning seminar. I performed it for the class (which had just a few students).
The original version, which I performed once or twice in those days, was written for my voice and the Harrison-Colvig transfer harp. That instrument has movable bridges, which sit on the soundboard (like a koto), 17 metal strings, tuning beads (behind the nut), and autoharp-style tuning pegs. There are three different methods for tuning each string: moving the bridge, sliding the bead, or turning the pegs. It was not intended primarily for performance.
Some combination of the mystical Carter family tune, my friendship with Ben, and the relative safety of performing in front of just a couple of my fellow students emboldened me to arrange and sing the song. I tried to use the idiosyncrasies of the instrument: the ability to bow only the top or bottom string; using the movable bridges for vibrati; and the quiet sounds of simply “touching” the strings. There are two explicit acknowledgements to Ben’s work in the piece: the 13-limit tuning, and the short quote from “Amazing Grace.”
After I left Illinois, I rearranged the piece for the New Kanon New Music Ensemble (myself, Gary Schmidt, Andrew Newell, Pat Mundy and Dan Thomas). We performed that version many times on tour around the U.S. Other ensembles have since performed the piece as well, often substituting other types of zithers, autoharps and the like for the transfer harp.