I've been hunkered down in St. Louis while Christina works as a pianist with the Opera Theatre for eight weeks. Fortunately this has meant a lot of time for me to compose, and even my own "studio" (an extra room in our apartment) with a desk and piano to use while she's off at rehearsals and performances.
Because of this allotment of time and space, I've managed to finish two pieces in the past few weeks - the first, a duo for two alto saxophones titled Luminous Blue Variables, written for saxophonists Stacy Maugans and Carolyn Bryan for a premiere at the World Saxophone Congress in Zagreb, Croatia, next month. And just yesterday I finished and sent off a commission from the Bennington Chamber Music Conference, Meno Mosso (after Ockeghem) for two oboes, English horn, and solo strings.
Luminous Blue Variables explores the two saxophones' relationship to a single monophonic theme; how the two voices split apart and depart from the theme; how they occasionally re-converge; how one may echo and distort the material played by the other; how this may happen in incredibly tight time intervals (like a rapid delay), left up to chance (variable delay), or at very long time intervals; and how multiphonics may play a part in this dialogue by providing a harmonic framework in which another voice may interpolate scalar material. I had a lot of fun writing this one, and, I feel, also broke new ground in my own language and process - particularly by using timbral parameters to modulate and effect the areas of melody, harmony, rhythm and gesture (and vice versa).
In the excerpt below, the musicians play the same cadenza-like passage as fast as possible, one beginning immediately after the other, creating a type of canon at very close, somewhat random and variable time intervals.
With Meno Mosso I went in a completely different direction, taking inspiration from the instrumentation of oboes and strings and embracing the modal sound world of early Western music. I even borrowed a few melodic fragments from Ockeghem's Missa Mi-Mi.
The piece extends, transforms, and distorts this raw material in various ways. The oboes' opening music, seen above, experiences the intensification of dissonance from diatonic clusters to more jarring cross-relations. The piece also takes the falling-fourth plagal relationship prevalent in Renaissance music to an extreme, and enriches the music's harmonic palette by extending this pattern upward and downward, creating a sort of "hyper" modality:
This has been my pattern lately: as I move from one piece to the next, each becomes a reaction against the previous one, creating a large-scale zigzag between parallel tracks moving towards some unseen point of convergence (or maybe it's more like an asymptote). On the one hand, I'm attracted to complexity and abstraction; I want to create music with pulsing vitality but without an obvious pulse, music that is harmonically expressive and nuanced but without discernible common-practice underpinnings, music that speaks through color and gesture, and melodies that sing but without affectation or rhetorical precedent. On the other hand, I keep feeling the impulse to simplify, go back to basics, speak plainly and without obfuscation, build from the ground up, and communicate a primal impulse rooted in the musical traditions that I was born and grew up in. I know I'm not the only one working to try to resolve these contradictions.
My next piece, due in September, is a work for two pianos, commissioned by the Indiana Music Teachers Association/Music Teachers National Association. We'll see where the next impulse leads me.