When I began to research the mpingo (African blackwood) tree in preparation for writing this piece, I came to learn that it is a fascinating tree. It has the ability to survive fires, it does not reach maturity for about 70 – 100 years, and it improves soil fertility. However, it is endangered in several African countries due to illegal logging and over-harvesting, in part because of its beautiful dark heartwood. The outside of the mpingo tree looks like any other tree with a light brown color; the inside, however, is a gorgeous, dark brown-black color – a color you have seen if you’ve ever seen a clarinet, as clarinets, along with other western instruments, are made out of the dark heartwood of the mpingo tree. I had never stopped to think about why wooden clarinets have such a dark color instead of what one typically thinks of as a wood color. I was astonished by the hidden beauty of this tree and what secrets lay inside.
Duo Mpingo is somewhat programmatic in that it loosely chronicles the imagined life of a mpingo tree. There is a short section close to the middle of the piece (the “inner” part of the piece, if you will) that is meant to evoke the beautiful, mysterious, endangered dark heartwood of the mpingo tree. The direction to the performers for this section is “solemn, prayer-like, reverential”, which is how I feel we should look at every tree – not as something in our way that needs to be cut down, but with reverence for the amazing living things they are.
This piece was commissioned by Clarinets for Conservation, a part of Daraja Music Initiative. This program provides an interdisciplinary approach to sustainability through music education by promoting awareness of conserving Mpingo trees and actively engaging students and the community with the power of music. Please feel free to check out their wonderful work at darajamusicinitiative.org.
Duo Mpingo was commissioned and premiered by Daraja Music Initiative and Clarinets for Conservation to promote a sustainable planet. This recording is by members of Terminus Ensemble, Marcus Moore and Lauren Murphy.