Flying into Philadelphia snow for a rehearsal with Daedalus Quartet and my mind is not on Task. Task is my fourth quartet, as in studying the score and remembering exactly how I want everything to sound (I finished it 8 months ago, or five pieces ago – funny how these things fly out of my mind), as well as trying to imagine what questions the players might ask so I can give them brilliant-sounding answers. Shouldn’t be a problem, right?
Instead of Task, my mind is on Cool Night. Cool Night, as in Part Two of my Schumann Trilogy. All three pieces in the trilogy are due at the end of this month, and I’m deep in the process of proofing parts. In other words, after three years of work, I can finally smell the finish line.
As that enticing scent gets closer, two things happen: first, a tipping point in the number of details I’m trying to keep straight has been passed, causing my head to do a gradually accelerating, 360-degree rotation on my neck. Believe me, it’s not an attractive sight. If I take too much time away from working on the piece, that sickening spin means I’m likely to lose track of some of aforementioned details, making serious screwups likely.
Second, the smell of near-completion arouses an overwhelming emotional force in the pit of my stomach, which turns my hip joints into jelly and sends my eyelids aflutter, making it difficult for me to take heed of mundane things like traffic lights and burning bushes.
So if you happen see a zombie-like apparition stumbling through the streets of Philadelphia, eyes glazed, arms stretched out limply before him, growling, “must finish piece, must finish piece” — well, that’d be me.
On the other hand, Task:
“an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”
That’s the Pascal quote that graces the title page of my fourth quartet, subtitled The Infinite Sphere. It’s a poetic paradox that suggested a composition of dizzily overlapping circles, with centers liberally sprinkled throughout. The challenge was to combine chaotic beauty and coherent form – the coherence of a sphere, the chaos of infinity.
My solution: a large rondo form made up of small rondo forms alternating with rounds. The two movements play out as follows:
String Quartet No. 4: The Infinite Sphere (2009)
I. ROUND: The Infinite Sphere
RONDO: Spinning Dizzy
RONDO: Circular Fugue
II. ROUND: Devotion
RONDO: Spinning Reckless
ROUND: The Infinite Sphere
That’s the formal conceit. The musical materials make use of all kinds of circular gestures, and I could write about them ad nauseum, but what’s more interesting to me is the fact that The Infinite Sphere has to be one of my most joyous, exuberant works to date. Some of its high spirits can be attributed to the form itself: traditional rondos don’t tend to deal in existential angst. Part of it, though, comes from a challenge I set myself – writing a twenty-minute piece that has a positive emotional tone is not the easiest thing to do. I hasten to add that we’re not talking yippee-yippee-yippee for twenty minutes – that would be obnoxious. Two of the rounds have a dynamic range of pp to mp, focusing on a very quiet, transcending joy.
And now it’s time to stow this device so my intrepid pilot can bring us safely into the fluffy flakes.
Eight hours later, and I’m on the plane back home. We’ve been assured that it is now safe to operate portable electronic devices. I’m glad they make the distinction, although I’m also glad I didn’t see anyone getting on the plane with an electronic device that wasn’t portable.
Rehearsal was great. Judy Sherman once compared working with the Daedalus Quartet to driving a Rolls Royce, and the comparison is apt. The ride couldn’t have been smoother. The handling was a dream – anything I asked for I got instantly, and better than I imagined.
Now is when I get to say that if you have any desire to hear The Infinite Sphere, you are in luck: there are four performances scheduled so far.
- January 15: Wolf Trap, Washington
- January 16: UNC School of the Arts, Winston-Salem
- January 31: University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
- May 16: Howland Chamber Series, New York
Or you could just wait for the recording to come out on Bridge, which will happen as soon as we jump through about a kazillion more hoops than you would imagine possible.
And now I’m going to stow this blog to open up a folder on my laptop that is exuding a seductive stench with my name on it.