BY DANIEL HO | FROM THE SPRING 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
A few years ago, I set out to explore our world in search of unique musical collaborations. My travels brought me to Inner Mongolia, where I had the honor of recording with theGrasslands Ensemble. This talented group of instrumentalists and vocalists represents a diversity of ethnicities: Mongolian, Manchurian, Evenk, Daur, Russian, and Han Chinese. The title track of our 2017 album, Between the Sky & Prairie, is a pioneering cultural and musical exchange, as it is the first collaboration featuring a ukulele, a low-pitched Mongolian fiddle, and Mongolian vocal melodies.
I wrote this piece while driving through the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. In awe of the endless expanse of blue and green, I strummed a G major chord: G for grasslands. I wondered whether there was a way to capture my feelings at that moment—peaceful, excited, and grateful for this majestic land—and I came up with a melodic theme that gently rippled, like the rolling hills of the steppe. To create an intro, I stretched the melodic theme out over time, a compositional technique known as augmentation. After the eight-bar introduction, I transposed the theme down an octave.
In contrast to the mountainous terrain of the Hawaiian Islands, the Mongolian sky and prairie meet on a fairly straight horizon. To portray that evenness, I decided to use a pedal point (a low note sustained under a melodic or harmonic passage) and strategically chose the key of G major, as it would allow me to use the open low G string as the pedal. Also, note that the melody of this piece, designated with accent marks (>) near the noteheads, is woven into the arpeggiated chords. Try to bring out the melody over the accompaniment by plucking those notes more deliberately.
Upon first impression, an instrumental piece and its title might not always have the most obvious connection. But if you study it carefully enough, you might uncover the composer’s intent or even find your own meaning. “Between the Sky & Prairie” depicts the perspective of a world-traveling ukulele that has the fortune of sharing a medium with old but new, foreign yet familiar, horizon-expanding friends. It evokes imagery of one of the most beautiful places on earth.
“Between the Sky & Prairie” is the title track of the Grasslands Ensemble & Daniel Ho’s album, available on iTunes and at DanielHo.com.