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Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons (3rd = contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (antique cymbals, bass drum, 2 bongos, chimes, Chinese cymbal, claves, cowbell, field drum, guiro, hammer, maracas, marimba, sizzle cymbal, snare drum, suspended cymbal, tambourine, tenor drum, thunder sheet, 2 timbales, 4 tom-toms, wood block, xylophone), harp, piano, celesta, and strings. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 7, 1990, David Alan Miller conducting.

“Ain’t gonna bump no more…”

— song by Joe Tex

This week’s performances and a late-1970s disco song may not seem to have much in common, but believe it or not, they do:

“In Bump, whose title refers to dance floor bumping…,” begins composer Christopher Rouse in an interview with Glenn Watkins, “my vision was of a Boston Pops tour performance in Hell. As the orchestra begins to play, the various ghouls and demons emerged from the crevasses to dance a sort of ‘nightmare conga’ which [grows] increasingly frantic and chaotic as time progresse[s].”

Indeed, Rouse doesn’t find inspiration for this rollicking and robust work in the traditional music of the concert hall – Beethoven, Brahms, et al. – rather, he looks to popular music.

“[There] is much that refers to the Latin big band sound as well as to rock and roll – instead of allusions to Bruckner and Shostakovich… here the references are to Led Zeppelin and Canned Heat,” said Rouse.

Bump is the closing movement of a larger, three-movement work, Phantasmata. The title of the larger work, according to Rouse, means “hallucinations created by thought” from the works of Paracelsus. Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, or Paracelsus, was a 16th-century philosopher and physician who worked to overthrow the age-old medical system of Galen (a Greek physician from the 2nd century) with a newer holistic approach. Paracelsus left behind 32 encoded messages, disguised as prophecies, most likely so that he could avoid persecution.

Just like the expression “things that go bump in the night,” the work begins with a few muffled percussive thumps on the bass drum, grunts in the bassoons and contrabassoon, cellos and basses bouncing their bows on their strings, a growl in the low brass, and a percussive blow or two in the violas. Before long, an off-kilter dance begins, leading to a madcap climax – the first of many. Welcome to the platform of Hell’s subway.

The ride begins as little ghoulish solos – bassoon, then oboes, finally clarinets – emerge over an insistent drone in horns and harp. Attention moves to low brass playing an erratic and strident melody which thumps and knocks against a continually solid beat, eventually ending in a raucous brass and percussion romp. Section against section, loud against soft, rhythm vs. melody – each is shown in opposition to the other. Flittering flutes match wits against a baritone sax, strings have their turn as woodwinds shout and chirp. Before long, all Hell breaks loose, then grinds to a halt, then breaks loose again. This bumptious ride ends quite differently than it began, with a jolting orchestral “thwack.”

This is one version of Hell that Dante never imagined: rather humorous, raucous, and so fleeting as to be over before you know it. If only the purveyors of disco and platform shoes had been as kind to us.

Composer Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. from UCLA, is a writer and program editor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl.