Dec 7, 2011


I recently finished a piece called Tonic for the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia to be premiered on February 12. It focuses on chords which is very unusual for me as I'm usually focused on layers of activity, line and counterpoint. I'm always concerned with harmony in the broader sense of what notes are in play and levels of contrast from one moment to the next and I am always happy when  an interesting vertical sonority coalesces from the convergence of linear elements, but I rarely try to invent chords for chords' sake. 

My starting point was to question a basic assumption I had about chords. I was in the habit, as I think most of us are, of thinking of chords as a stack of more or less equal notes. I wondered what would happen if I combined a clear, relatively simple foreground two to three-note chord with a softer shadow. It makes sense that if I were to start thinking about chords they would be, like these chords, inherantly stratified – chords built from a frozen counterpoint between a simple foreground and more complex shadow. 

SInce I was not thinking of homogeneous chords but rather dealing with particular degrees of shadow and foreground it became important to know the color of each individual contribution to the chord – harmony became inseperable from orchestration.

As far as I can imagine and hear from MIDI playback, the effect appeals to me. I hear a sonic analog to porous, diffused light effects – gossamer and atmospheric, but they also can have a sustained, static, muscular tension. A mode of harmonic motion that is new to me is achieved by keeping the foreground the same and moving just the shadow and vica versa. Of course there are infinite coloristic possibilities with different foregrounds and shadows. 

With the revelation, as I mentioned above, that orchestration becomes inseperable from harmony, comes the realization that I am not the first to explore this idea. Maybe without even thinking about it consciously, the orchestration of chords in Stravinsky, and Andriessen do some of the same things. 

I am now trying to apply some of these ideas to a chamber piece (Violin, Clarinet, Cello and Piano, for SOLI in San Antonio). It is much easier in an orchestral context to create different spaces for foreground and shadow and with four instruments, one of whom has a quick decay, the results are much different – less gossamer ... still cool though I think.