Prelude to the End

mixed quartet with video

In 1992 I wrote a piece called Physical Property for electric guitar and string quartet. Its purpose was simply to share the joy of playing fast music and feeling the metaphorical wind in your hair. It was written very quickly which prohibited over thinking and the result is a 15-minute, unfettered romp. The members of Soli were fans of the piece and programmed it years ago, so when they asked me to write them a new piece the thought crossed my mind that I should try to recapture the energy of Physical Property. That was an all too familiar thought; several times in the last 20 years I have sought to take that fast ride again but I always fail because I am not the same person I was back then. In the intervening two decades I have lost both my parents, had two children, been divorced and remarried, lost energy, gained wisdom, lost innocence, gained sophistication—I’ve lived a normal life. It occurred to me that I should make that inevitable failure a feature of the piece and make the piece about the struggles and complications that make it impossible for me to re-write Physical Property.

Beginning with unabashed ebullience, Prelude to the End can’t resist exploring darker expressive territory, more complicated harmonic paths, and precarious textures. Over 15 minutes, gravity and gravitas pulls the music into areas that could not be predicted by the opening. Well, that isn’t actually true because, to my ear, even the first gesture shows signs of mortality.

The instrumentation—violin, clarinet, cello, and piano—is strongly associated with Messiaen’s landmark composition Quartet for the End of Time. Any such group would probably perform Messiaen many times; in fact, such groups were probably formed in order to play Messiaen. It occurred to me that the trajectory of my piece from goofy to grave would be a good set up for, a prelude to the Quartet for the End of Time, hence the title. The title also refers to the fact that at the premiere my work closed the program and as such functioned as a prelude to the end of the concert.

— Steven Mackey