First Tangent to the Given Curve (1995-1996)

The more time passes, the more I am fascinated with putting together musical ideas that are on the surface seemingly unrelated, to see how they effect and transform each other, how their interactions generate form-building energies. The tensions from their contrasts, the rhythms within each event, how each idea unfolds and develops, the rhythms with which the events succeed or interrupt each other... all these elements form the dynamic of my work. They are ensembles of things that generate a world of complexities, intertwinings, symmetries and asymmetries, turbulence, provocations, moods, much like the multifarious life experiences—both day to day and in the long run. The result is a unique form, a completed blend, rather like a reflection of a series (a collection) of events in life that you perceive as a local whole. The relationship between the piano and the computer generated electronic sounds is, on the other hand, rigorously worked out with extreme precision. The pitch structure provides the basis for the sounds, or vice versa a certain kind of sound yields the basis for the intervals and the notes. And they, too, mutually influence each other. A kind of cooperative “a due.” The electronic sounds were generated entirely using the MUSIC30 program for digital sound synthesis running on the Spirit30 accelerator board for PC, by Sonitech Intl (Wellesley MA). The title of the work comes from an essay by Michel Serres, which captures rather nicely the sense of the music, the sense of the composition:


“Here is the complement of the model. Given a flow of atoms, by the declination, the first tangent to the given curve, and afterward by the vortex, a relatively stable thing is constituted. It stays in disequilibrium, ready to break, then to die and disappear but nonetheless resistant by its established conjunctions, between the torrential flow from the upstream currents and the river flowing downstream to the sea. It is a stationary turbulence.” — Michel Serres, on Lucretius


A Sheaf of Times, septet (1992-1994)

A Sheaf of Times takes its title from a Michel Serres essay, The Origin of Language: Biology, Information Theory and Thermodynamics: “The living organism, ontogenesis and phylogenesis combined, is of all times. This does not mean that it is eternal, but rather that it is an original complex, woven out of all the different times that our intellect subjects to analysis or that our spatial environment tolerates... All the temporal vectors possessing a directional arrow are here, in this place, arranged in the shape of a star. What is an organism? A sheaf of times. What is a living system? A bouquet of times.”


The many images in this paragraph suggest ways of listening. Certainly the composer is giving us a work of many times, that is, of many tempi; but also of many simultaneous times, a rubbing up against each other of different tempi, of different rates of speed in which the phrases, lines, fragments, even larger chunks of the work all unfold. Again following the Serres paragraph, we can hear “an original complex, woven out of all the different times” which is just the kind of weaving of lines and energies in time, with times, that makes up this piece. The first part is, approximately, several crescendos, or several overlapped beginnings that grow into a fullness. Starting from the barest whisper of percussion sound, the gradual wave-like increase in dynamic, the accumulation of tension and evolution of complexity, all proceed toward an extended area of maximum energy; yet rather than discharging this energy the music spirals up unexpectedly into the high registers and disappears, as if to say “not yet, wait.” Something else has emerged that doesn’t so much command our attention as to nudge our awareness gently in another direction. The second part is that other direction, another bouquet of times. The multiple lines and complex phrasing of the previous part is replaced by a succession of deliciously orchestrated chordal phrases that provide a needed calm. It is energy contrast on the largest formal scale. Dashow’s sense of ensemble timbre, refined by years of work with electronic sound, is here on full display: the subtle shadings of chords, closely voiced or spread wide in a spatial transparency, yield a low-keyed flow of energy that generates a form of rich repose, while somehow keeping a sense that, suspended in the background, the powerful energy from part 1 is ready to re-emerge, now tempered by the shape and line of part 2. Several moments of timbral magic are in the delicate harp passages set within the surrounding chords in winds, strings and the haunting quality of a bowed vibraphone.


The third part turns on immediately, a kind of in medias res as the delayed energy of part 1 is suddenly there, not yet full blast, but rather in a more lean and sinewy form. The movement is more playful, with duets and trio groupings of the instruments keeping the line and counter-lines fresh with new intricacies. Conductor Paul Hoffmann masterfully paces the momentum, balance and interaction of these sub-ensembles. In keeping with the general motion of the whole piece there is at last a long final build-up, energies reach a critical level, and the prolonged climactic moment is dense with multiple lines and rhythmic configurations (yet perfectly transparent to the ear). The work, the form, the shape, is complete. A brief moment of falling-off, almost a complement to the gentle side-tracking at the end of part 1, brings A Sheaf of Times to a finely balanced close.



Messages from Ortigia is based on the first version of the structure of the Prologue, part I, from my planetarium opera, Archimedes. This particular way of doing things wasn’t working in the context of the opera, but it was quite clear to me that it could be successfully adapted for instruments and electronic sounds. Along came a commission from the Boston Harvard Musical Association, whose president at the time was Nicholas Anagnostis, a man devoted to music and to the promotion of contemporary art music in particular. And so Messages from Ortigia got under way.


Ortigia is the island right up against the Sicilian city of Syracuse, Archimedes’ home town. What little real fact is known about this extraordinary man suggests that he probably lived on Ortigia. The notion of “messages” comes from the visit I paid to Ortigia and Syracuse during the composition of Archimedes to get a feel for his environment. I found myself immediately immersed in a wonderous mix of the ancient and the modern, the latter of course being the everyday objects and happenings of our own time, while the former was felt everywhere, a subtle yet powerful undertow of the magnificent civilization that was the ancient Grecian Syracuse in the 3rd century BCE. Looking along the coast just to the north of the city was to glimpse Ulysses’ beaches unchanged and the timeless Mediterranean Sea that was the birthplace of so much Western culture. It was like being transported to the origin of our cultural roots. It occurred to me that there was still much to be absorbed or remembered from those extraordinary times and the people who lived them, important messages to be deciphered that are vital to our own lives.


The general form of Ortigia is multi-sectional with varying degrees of energy, which by the time of the composition of this piece had become my standard method for creating an overall structure.  It is played without pause but contains large scale contrasts between sections that, again, approximate the idea of separate “movements,” where each section has its own developmental dynamic of varying intensities. Now I had 4 instruments at my disposal for which to design electronic sounds, creating some interesting challenges to match timbrally one way or another the various combinations of these instruments, in pairs, in threes, and all four, besides solo passages for each instrument. There was also the spatial contrast of 4 soloists in the front with the placement and movement of the electronic sounds in the hexaphonic space that surrounds the audience.

The spatialization of the sounds into 6 channels, a significant step beyond my previous work in the quadraphonic configuration, added a new dimension to the composition, and as such contributed in new ways to the kind of composed energy levels that I used to develop the piece. Spatial movement has its own energy, determined by velocity, direction, depth perception etc., which are here combined with or contrasted to such energy generating elements as rhythm, dynamic variations, and especially the pitch-timbral integration characteristic of my Dyad System. The interactions of all these elements create the multi-faceted form of the piece, concluding with a full and richly sustained timbre in which the instruments participate quietly as timbral partners to the sound.


The recording here is a stereophonic mixdown with enhanced or widened stereo images that attempt to capture in part this fascinating aspect of physical space used for musically expressive purposes.


Mnemonics (1982, rev. 1984)

Mnemonics was originally commissioned by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts for Matthew Raimondi, the extraordinary New York violinist who at the time (1981) was first violinist for the Pro Arte Quartet. Because of a series of circumstances well beyond anybody’s control, Mario Buffa premiered the piece in Italy followed by multiple opportunities for subsequent performances. The masterful recording here is the result of his deep understanding of the work thanks to his experience with the many live performances. His timing is perfect, and we were even able to do the recording without a click track!


Mnemonics was a sort of break-through piece for me. I had been developing my dyad synthesis techniques and had reached a point of being able to achieve a good deal of timbral variety, the pitch organization aspects of my Dyad System had begun to bear fruit, and the new pair of converters at the University of Padova Computer Center gave me the chance to work in the quadraphonic environment, my very first use of space as a compositional element. All of this came together in Mnemonics for the first time. The work makes use of contrasting textures that are at the same time closely related formally through the carefully organized pitch (as dyads) structures which in turn furnish the generating dyads for the electronic sounds.


The electronic sounds are designed to interact in a variety of ways with the characteristic sound of the violin, and this lends to the music a structural-expressive unity that is significantly different from the usual interactions of soloist and accompanying ensemble.


The work is built around varying degrees of tension and relaxation, or energy levels, that complement each other in coming together to generate the form of the piece as a whole. These contrasting energy levels very roughly correspond to “movements” in a traditional piece, but the means of developing each energy section is quite unlike the traditional idea of “development.” In fact, each section has its own rhythm of contrasting-complementary energy levels that contribute to a multi-level way of musical conception and, more importantly, musical perception.


The last section is the first of what has become a characteristic of my music, a sustained meditative, somewhat nostalgic, tone of voice where the interaction between violin and electronic sound projects an expressivity that takes the listener well beyond the work’s structural-function foundations.


Oro, Argento & Legno (1987)

With Oro, Argento & Legno (Gold, Silver & Wood), we enter a very different world. The work is in 4 sections, played without pause; the flutist plays piccolo and alto flute besides the regular instrument, and the electronic sounds are carefully designed to fit the timbral differences of these three instruments. It is a virtuoso work, making intense demands on the soloist. Technically, the work requires speed and accuracy in executing wide leaps both in pitch and in dynamic; expressively, the wide variety of gestures in the piece, often juxtaposed, require the soloist to change mood and expressive intent often and suddenly in order to create successfully the work’s emotional complexity. And throughout, the soloist must maintain perfect control over the timbre of his instrument to match and to blend with the electronic sounds.


No less than the flute part, the electronic sounds are virtuosity of a high order. The tremendous timbral variety provides the flutist with sharply contrasting expressive contexts ranging from the radically austere texture for the alto flute (which, notwithstanding the extreme reduction to sparse events, creates an exceptional sense of spatial depth a deeply moving moment in the original quadraphonic environment), to the multiple supersonic lines for the piccolo punctuated with unexpected stops and starts, to the rich symphonic fullness of the finale. It is the unmistakable sound of Dashow’s electronic music, coming at us here like an ebullient timbral kaleidoscope, full of fantasy, invention and discovery.


Oro, Argento & Legno has become something of a classic since its composition in 1987-88, originally for Florentine flutist Marzio Conti whose three instruments were made, respectively, of Gold (flute), Silver (alto flute) and Wood (piccolo). Because of its virtuoso requirements, flutists around the world have adopted the work for showcase performances.


Manuel Zurria meets all the work’s challenges magnificently in this recording. Some of the highlights of his interpretation are the energetic yet subtle shaping of the complex flute line in the first section, his rich sensuous alto flute tone in section 2, and his marvelously lively piccolo performance in the super high-speed, almost bop-like, section 3.


ARCHIMEDES, Suite from the planetarium opera (2000-2008)

The Archimedes Suite from Dashow’s planetarium opera Archimedes is a selection of many of the most characteristic musical moments of the work and follows the actual sequence of scenes and events of the original, with but one exception: a fragment inserted out of order for compositional necessities.


The opera’s quite exceptional timbral variety and brilliance of musical invention is here presented in a compact form that emphasizes the fluctuations in dramatic tension generated by the continuing transformations, evolutions, and stark contrasts of musical ideas. The principal characters are all there: we hear the opening of the opera, Marcellus’ immediately identifiable chamber ensemble, followed by the eerie surrealistic “Demiurge” featuring Antonio Politano’s electronically manipulated recorders. Then come extracts from Archimedes’ EUREKA! moment introducing his own identifying music realized throughout on a variety of guitars. This is followed by the music for the “mechanics ballet” in which several mimes act out physically some of Archimedes’ discoveries. Finally, we hear the dramatic confrontation of the people of Syracuse begging Archimedes to use his knowledge to protect their—his—city from the Roman invaders. This leads to the climactic moment in “Archimedes at War” when the mathematician invokes the overwhelming power of the sun through his geometric inventions that are no longer just abstract mathematics, but horrifyingly lethal instruments of death.


The suite closes out with the deeply moving electronic sounds that accompany Marcellus’ muted epilogue, his immense sadness in realizing that the opportunity for a widespread Roman peace had been lost to a war gone out of control. Perhaps he understands as well that such knowledge as possessed by Archimedes and human geniuses like him will forever be distorted by the cruelly brutish nature of mankind, until human beings learn to tame themselves. And perhaps Archimedes, at last, knew that too, just before his death at the hands of the Demiurge. The opera seems to ask if, even after our thousands of years of building civilizations, we will ever understand that.


The orchestral sounds were pre-recorded instrument samples subjected to electronic elaboration allowing the composer to create some unique timbral events as well as a large number of musical articulations not physically possible on the original live instruments. The electronic sounds were realized in the composer’s studio using a variety of synthesis and signal processing techniques. In the original opera, the hexaphonic spatialization of the sounds adds significantly to the drama, allowing the audience to feel as if they are inside the musical action, rather than outside spectators. The complete opera, in an enhanced stereo mixdown, has been recorded on a NeumaRecords triple-CD.


— Notes by James Dashow and others


Read an interview with James Dashow and Sahlan Momo (in Rome, 1989) about the composer’s Dyad System.





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