Time to try a little experiment. With the help of the amazing Jerry Bowles (and the inspiration of Greg Sandow’s Concert Companion), I have posted a sound-file of the second movement of my Furies and Muses for bassoon and string quartet. It’s 7:45 long, and it features a truly amazing performance by the Cassatt String Quartet and Jeff Keesecker. If you have 7:45 on your hands, just click on the link and give it a listen. Meanwhile, I have written a Composer’s Commentary to go along with the piece, a moment-by-moment breakdown of what I was trying to accomplish and how I did it.

This little experiment seems to go against much of what we have been taught about music — music should speak for itself, right? As far as I’m concerned, this music does speak for itself. I’m just speaking for me. Anyone who is not interested in what I have to say about the piece can simply read no further.

The movement is labeled Aria, but this is an aria about the desire (as opposed to the ability) to sing. It is an aria of tentative attempts and elusive results.

So here goes. Click here to begin. (If your media player takes up the whole window, diminish it so you can read along. On some computers, you may have to hit the back button once the music starts, in order to read the text.)

0:00 The piece opens with the violins playing a muted, one-measure, rocking figure that recurs 55 times, each time altered slightly. In addition, each recurrence features a slight speeding up and slowing down within each measure. As if that weren’t difficult enough to pull off, there is a gradual increase in tempo from bar 1 to bar 49, such that the speed of the piece imperceptibly increases by almost 50% over the course of the first five minutes. Again, in an aria about the inability to sing, elusiveness is the primary compositional objective.

But there is another goal as well. When I wrote the piece in 1997, I was becoming increasingly disturbed by the amount of music I was hearing that was clearly composed for midi (computerized) playback, with tempos and rhythms rigidly fixed to an inaudible drumbeat. Don’t get me wrong: I like a good mechanical rhythm as much as the next guy, but what I was hearing at the time sounded suspiciously like default composing.

So writing this kind of fluctuating tempo was a way for me to celebrate the uncanny manner in which great musicians can feel time together. The violinists (Muneko Otani and Jennifer Leshnower) play this entire, subtly shifting passage as if they were one person. Listen! Aren’t they amazing?

0:23 The bassoon, wrapped in the warmth of the viola and cello, enters on a single note. The tone quality shifts from moment to moment, as each of the three instruments alternates between sustaining and rearticulating the pitch. At times the result is eerily hornlike; at times it approaches a saxophone timbre. The note gradually dies to two instruments, then one, then none.

0:47 Again, the bassoon, viola and cello enter, this time with a little more confidence, adding a second note. Again, they die away, one by one.

1:14 A third attempt, slightly more expansive.

1:41 The fourth try starts off well, but then goes awry, ending up on a strangely distant pitch.

2:10 The wrong direction again, with more persistence. The viola and cello play close to the bridge of their instruments, which gives the sound more of an edge, an added strain to the effort.

2:31 A tentative attempt to correct course.

2:57 Four increasingly intense fragments, each one phasing in and out of the key, each one oddly out of sync with the accompaniment.

4:37 A series of violent outbursts, rapidly alternating with moments of tenderness.

5:00 The first violin spins out of control, separating from the rocking figure for the first time.

5:20 Now the second violin shoots off in a new direction, and the rocking pattern that held the piece together to this point is shattered.

5:30 The five instruments converge rhythmically for the first and only time.

5:40 All five instruments participate in an intense, slow arioso, joining and separating from one another in various pairings. It seems odd to me now, but this passage wasn’t in the original version. After the first performance, though, I felt that the fragments heard so far needed some kind of consummation, even if it was just a consummation of their fragmentedness.

6:55 The violins gradually reestablish the rocking pattern.

7:35 The piece concludes with the same distant, puzzling note first heard at 1:41, a note of conflict, isolation and tender regret.

Again, this aria is the second movement of Furies and Muses. The piece uses Classical forms to explore the fine line between creation and destruction, between order and chaos. If you are interested in hearing/reading more, click here.

Please let me know what you think of this kind of Composer Commentary, and if you have any suggestions for ways to make it more effective.

Oh, and a caveat for those of you who are hearing a piece of mine for the first time: this aria isn’t really typical of how my music sounds, but it is definitely typical of how my music thinks.

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