Innova 643

The Sound According to John

John Belcher



The Compositions


Track 1 -- A Sound Is Worth a Thousand Pictures                                  4:28

This piece is a synthesis of a mathematics structure (which guides how parts come in and out of phase), use of aural space (exploration of negative space), and chance operations (some tracks were recorded outside of a set time structure). I sought to create a “soundforest” effect.


Voices and Miscellaneous Percussion/Toy Sounds: John Belcher, Abdul Mateen, Alioune Cissoko

JB Music, 1989

Recorded at Orwig Music Studio, Brown University; Recording Engineer, Linton Hale

Previously released on Dougouto Nganya, Meeting of the Ones


Track 2 -- Hide and Seek – Further Adventures of a Search for Self      5:57

This is a composition form that I call a “voice collage suite.” There are three sections: (1) Crosspulse – A Multidimensional Self-Dialogue, (2) Nobody Here, (3) The Last Daze. This composition was inspired by a TV minister’s sermon, “Are We Living in the Last Days?”, cockroaches in my apartment and a meditative experience about balancing perspective and intensity.


Voices: John Belcher

JB Music, 1984

Recorded at Orwig Music Studio, Brown University


Track 3 -- Collapse                                                                                       1:18

This composition is based upon a 198 beat cycle. The cycle occurs three times, each repeat occurring at a faster tempo. The snare drum plays a “collapsing” rhythm – 3 cycles of 11 beats, 3 cycles of 10 beats and so on down to 3 cycles of 1 beat, with the “one” count of each cycle being accented by the claves. The tom-toms play a 6-beat cycle and the conga drum an 11-beat cycle. Chimes signal the places where the one counts of the tom-tom and conga cycles align. The gong marks the beginning of each 198 beat cycle.


Tom-toms and chimes: Abdul Mateen

Snare drum, congas, claves, and gong: John Belcher

JB Music, 1989

Recorded at Orwig Music Studio, Brown University; Recording Engineer, Linton Hale

Previously released on Dougouto Nganya, Meeting of the Ones


Track 4 -- Half of My Time                                                                          5:47

The concept and fundamental rhythm for this piece originated with dancer/choreographer Dorothy Jungels. The text came out fully formed in an improvisation. Thank goodness Dorothy had the tape recorder rolling. (I still have the original tape.)


Voices and Wooden Floor: John Belcher and Dorothy Jungels

JB Music, 1979

Recorded by John Spreier


Track 5 -- Expansions, Combinations, Contractions                               4:52

This piece wouldn’t let me record it until I got the structure right. Equipment kept malfunctioning each time I went to the studio until I got clear about how to organize the composition. I use a “rhythm ruler” structure, which serves as a basis for expanding, combining, and contracting time patterns. This piece was premiered at the 1985 Rhode Island Composers Forum.


Tin can drums, cardboard tube drum, cowbell, temple block, handclaps: John Belcher

JB Music, 1985

Recorded at Orwig Music Studio, Brown University; Recording Engineer, Maurice Methot


Track 6 -- High Capacity                                                                             8:50

This is another voice collage suite. There are three sections: (1) Making (Non)Sense, (2) Figure of Speech, and (3) Holding On/Letting Go. The sing-songy voice in Figure of Speech is based on text from a book (title forgotten) which happened to be on the bookshelf of Micah Solomon, the recording engineer. The sing-songy voice is meant to camouflage messages that begin on a “how great we are” note and turn “subversive.” For “Holding On/Letting Go”, I sought an “arche-tribal” feeling, sound-symbolic of that part of ourselves that reminds us to honor our past experiences (individual and collective) and encourages us to move courageously with new ideas into the uncertain future. This piece was commissioned by the Roger Williams University Dance Company in 1986.


Voices: John Belcher

JB Music, 1986

Recording Engineer: Micah Solomon


Track 7 -- Balanced Forces                                                                          4:49

This composition is based upon a 300 beat cycle formed by 26 different pulses (including two opposing “diagonal” pulses played by a bass roto-tom and bell tree). I use spoken syllables for some of the pulses that eventually come together to form the phrase “lovely unified sphere” just before the place in the composition where all of the pulses align – beat # 601, which is also the center of gravity of the composition. This piece was composed for Everett Dance Theatre’s Pandora Restaurant, which premiered at New York’s Dance Theater Workshop in 1990.


Percussion and voices: John Belcher

JB Music, 1990

Recorded at Celebration Sounds Recording Studio; Recording Engineer, Ken Carpenter


Track 8 -- Just Say _ N O _                                                                         4:23

This composition was written as a response to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign in the eighties – the text flowed spontaneously in an approximately 15-minute long writing session. I still draw upon the messages of this piece.


Voices: John Belcher, Abdul Mateen, Alioune Cissoko, Bolu Fatunmise

JB Music, 1989

Recorded at Orwig Music Studio, Brown University; Recording Engineer, Linton Hale

Previously released on Dougouto Nganya, Meeting of the Ones

Holding On/Letting Go (Reprise)

(see above)

Bonus Track

Track 9 -- Pandora’s Revenge                                                                     5:01

This recording is from a rehearsal, was recorded on a portable cassette recorder, and has a what-you-hear-is-what-you-get sound (I like it like that). Pandora’s Revenge is a sound symbolic follow-up to the myth of Pandora’s Box. In the myth, Pandora, overcome with curiosity, disregards her husband’s warning against opening the mysterious box that he kept hidden away in a room. In opening the box, Pandora unleashes misery, chaos, and destruction upon the world. An often forgotten part of the telling of the story is the force that almost didn’t make it out of the box, when Pandora, recognizing her grievous error, closed the lid. A faint voice inside implored her to let it, too, go out into the world, so that it, Hope, could counterbalance the negative forces that had been unleashed. The structure of Pandora’s Revenge plays with chaos, puts it in its proper place as just another (life) rhythm; surrounds it with swing, samba, and waltz; uses its energy to launch Hope. What better revenge!?!


Musicians: Phil Stallworth – tenor saxophone, Abdul Mateen – multiple melodic instrument, John Belcher – congas.

JB Music, 1985



Total Time:                45:28



According to my dad, among my favorite “toys” as a toddler were the bottle caps from the soda machine at the Howard County, Maryland barbershop where we got our hair cut. I would grab handfuls of bottle caps from the container and play with placing them in various arrangements, staying engrossed in this activity for long periods of time. Sometimes, I would return to the soda machine to get more caps, realizing that I needed extra caps to complete the arrangement that I envisioned.


Structurally, the pieces in The Sound According to John are all about playing with patterns – the bottle caps have been replaced by elements of sound. Time-space is the floor for exploring what it might mean to move backwards, forwards, sideways, and cyclically in time and to manipulate elements in different time configurations.


Semantically, the compositions are an exploration of six basic questions:

Who am i? Why am i? Where am i?

Who am I? Why am I? Where am I?

In none of the pieces do these questions grow up to become exclamation points, which is fine. I find that the questions are as pertinent to me the listener 15 to 25 years later as they were to me, the composer, 15 to 25 years ago.


There is a story behind each of the compositions. The telling works well over spring water, herbal tea, coffee, beer, wine, and Wu Liang Ye, mixed in with some walks in the park, along the ocean, and in the mountains – after the rain works best, so that we can catch a rainbow or two. In some sense, each piece composed itself. My job was to listen, particularly in ordinary moments – one of my favorite lines in High Capacity is “It’s as easy as walking and chewing your head at the same time.” The “walking and chewing your head at the same time” phrase was actually said by a drum student in a misspoken attempt at saying that drumming was like “walking and chewing gum at the same time.” Oftentimes, the inspirations for and the unfoldings of pieces came as whispered messages, usually like aural crumbs sprinkled on the path so that I wouldn’t get lost along the way. My job was to listen, to play, to trust, to ask questions, to stay open, and, finally, to make (non)sense.


A sound is worth a thousand pictures, with limitless coded messages. Listen with open I’s, and say know.


John Belcher (Fall, 2005)


Special Thanks and Acknowledgements

Thank you to all of the individuals who have made this recording possible – to the musicians, to the recording engineers, to those who put the creative call out, and to those who worked behind the scenes. Thank you to those whose work has inspired me and pushed me to think, explore, and play with the boundaries. Thank you to my Dougouto Nganya brothers – Alioune, Martin, Joh, Seydou, Isaa, Abdoul, Bolu and Abdul -- for the friendship and the rhythm-ship. Special thanks to my soul brother Abdul Mateen, who I knew I could turn to in order to bring it down the home stretch. Thank you to Dorothy Jungels and the members of Everett Dance Theatre; I am still drawing upon our body of work together and am inspired by your efforts to find peace in the pieces. Thank you to Brother Ah (Robert Northern) for the initiation into sounds awareness, for helping me to hear that inner voice (remember that session?), and for pointing out the distinction between music for entertainment and music for inner-attainment. Thank you to George Bass for leaving a legacy that I am almost evolved enough to fully appreciate and understand. Thank you to my wife and soul mate, Shan Zhuo, for your support, love, and devotion and for helping me to make life music. Thank you to my daughter, Shan Shan, for helping me to know myself more deeply and for giving me uncountable moments of pride and joy. Thank you to my Dad – warrior, teacher, and trailblazer – for clearing a path in front of me and for giving me some shoulders to stand upon. Thank you to my Stepmother Ann for helping to keep those shoulders broad and healthy. Thank you to my Mom – I have felt your presence from the “other side.” Thank you to the Ancestors and the Guides who whisper and shout.