Unlike the other two pieces in Space Rocks – Shapes and Shadows, Wedges requires preparation of the piano, in the form of screws inserted between the strings of four notes: middle C, the E above that, the A-flat above that, and the C below middle C. The resulting sounds are reminiscent of Indonesian gamelan music, a little gong-like. These sounds are the “wedges” that pierce the ordinary piano notes throughout the piece.
The name Cascade refers to the repeated falling motif. I think of this piece – along with Speak, Child – as my (to date) deepest musical confession. It comes from places inside me that are the most vulnerable, and (perhaps for that reason) also the most capable of healing.
I recall that Allen Ginsburg once told a young aspiring poet who asked him for advice, “Tell your secrets.” That, to me, is the essence of serious art. With each piece I write, I am trying to tell my secrets. In Cascade and in Speak, Child I think I have come closest to reaching inside and bringing my emotional and psychological secrets out.
There is an obsessive quality to the piece, both in the repeated falling motif and then in the pointillist middle section which eventually climaxes into a kind of exasperated pause. It ends with resignation. And yet, as the final filigree patterns express, it is a resignation and sadness that is mixed with a child’s persistence and willingness to go on, as best as one can.
This may be not at all how another listener will hear the piece. I do believe that music is its own language, and one cannot accurately describe music in words. (If I could, I would write the words instead.) But the above thoughts reflect the feelings that I had when I wrote Cascade, and still have when I listen to it.
The title Dilation refers to the opening up of the piece in its middle section, both dynamically and in the range of pitches in the flourishes, from very low to very high.
This may be the most accessible of the three parts of Space Rocks – Shapes and Shadows. It was written between Wedges and Cascade, but I think it works best as the finale of the triptych.
Perhaps it is also the clearest representation of what I mean by tonality in an atonal work. The opening, especially, and the closing passage as well, involve a series of chords that push from one to the next. I do not know exactly why this push exists, although I suppose if I sat down and analyzed each chord in succession I could offer some reasonable explanations. But as a composer, I am interested in the result rather than the theory. (As a music theoretician I am, to be sure, interested in the why, but that is a different hat that I wear!)
Speaking of theory, in this piece I also experimented with a technique that Charles Dodge, my teacher at the time (at Columbia University) recommended, which was to mirror the same pattern at different scales of magnitude. For example, the closing section consists of a harmonic progression that is derived from the initial opening motif but that proceeds at a longer time scale.
I fear that a music analyst trying to parse this out would be frustrated. My practice is to use such techniques as a starting point, but not to adhere to them rigidly. If the music tells me to tweak or adjust something, I will do so, regardless of whether the theoretical pattern is thereby broken. This again reflects what I learned from Luening about trusting my ear. It runs counter to much of post-Schoenberg music with its emphasis on 12-tone and serial techniques.
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