Egyptian history and particularly the story of the youngest Pharaoh of the XVIII dynasty, known as both Tutankhamon and Nebkheperura intrigued me during childhood. I would proudly dream of becoming an archeologist and collected many materials, especially about the 1922 discovery of the “King Tut” tomb. My father, for my ninth birthday, gave me an official “Tut” photo book that I still jealously protect from the passing of time.
This work takes its primary inspiration from the objects found in the tomb amongst which, the most significant was Tut’s golden mask. To the Egyptians, that colour signified the imperishable, eternal, and indestructible. There was a Senet game found and also 400 Shabtis statues which lend their name tothe title of this work, and were believed to come to life once entombed inside the pyramid becoming the pharaoh’s afterlife assistants. The Senet game, a version of which is musically played out by the orchestra is thought to be the most ancient board game. Similar to backgammon, but using chopstick-like counters instead of dice, two players moved their pieces along 30 places, some of which were marked with hieroglyphics signifying good or evil. The first player to exit the board became the winner and was thought to have symbolically defeated their enemies of the underworld and to have achieved eternal life.
The task of composing this piece was similar to playing a game. Shabtis can be defined as a “Musical game” oftenwith Senet rules applied to musical materials such as melodic lines, permutations of pitches and rhythmic patterns. Stability in both the process and the structure of the whole is assisted by referring to simple and consistent sets of rules.
Ancient instruments such as the rattle-like Sistrum, some specially built for this work by John Piccione, enrich the percussion sound pallet and are performed with symbolically ritualistic movements. Other sonic elements evoke ancient sounds and are produced with Gamelan instruments. The modern harp blended with sounds from the inside of the piano always present with a special pedal I designed and built to produce piano harmonics also adds to this flavour.
The material performed by the Gamelan ensemble guides the orchestra through the work’s “game-path” in a ritualistic function. At the end of the game after the Slow Dreaming Walzer and a Tutti game “Tut” is finally awoken. A new atmosphere and a previously unknown sound is heard. The Shabtis are awake and are ready to serve eternally in a new dimension of time, space and sound.
Thanks for the first performance of Shabtis to the Sydney Conservatorium Orchestra in the Conductor Series - Student Concerto Competition Winners September 2010
Conductor: Dr. Anthony Clarke
Gamelan soloists: Professor Peter Dunbar Hall- Eva Frey- Laura Altman –Mirei AkiyamaVideo of Shabtis