1 Embarking for Cythera (1978)
While reading an essay by Giovanni Macchia on the 18th-century French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau during the summer of 1978 I was struck by a paragraph describing the island of Cythera, the subject of one of Watteau's most celebrated paintings, "L'Embarquement pour l'îsle de Cythère:"
"The myth of the island of Cythera, or of love, has distant roots in French and Italian culture, in which the journey is depicted as a difficult quest. Cythera is a paradise wavering in the ephemeral and in artifice; it represents an invitation to delights amid the enchantment of nature. It is an island toward which the pilgrims embark but never arrive; it preserves its light only if it remains far on the horizon."
It was this short description of the mythical island, rather than Watteau's painting itself, which inspired the general atmosphere of "Embarking for Cythera," a brief ten-minute, one-movement work for eight players written that summer. The piece attempts to capture Macchia's senseof wavering in the ephemeral and in artifice by means of evanescent timbres, textures and harmonies, implying perhaps that the music's stability and moments of arrival like the island itself are just out of reach.
The somewhat unorthodox instrumentation of the work has a less poetic origin. That same summer, composer and colleague Donald Erb and I started to form a professional fifteen-instrument new music ensemble in Cleveland, a group we ultimately named Reconnaissance. At the point I began composing "Embarking for Cythera," eight players had joined, so I limited the instrumentation to those particular eight. Reconnaissance gave the piece its first performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music in January 1979 under the direction of John Ross, and later in Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, under the direction of Larry Baker.
2 The Clouds of Magellan (1995)
"The Clouds of Magellan" was commissioned by Indiana University to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the University's founding in 1820. The work was composed in 1995 and is cast in a single movement lasting about fourteen minutes; the first performance was given by the Indiana University Concert Orchestra in February 1996 under the direction of David Dzubay.
Musically the work is a hommage to the music of Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky, two composers whose works influenced my earliest compositional efforts, and to whom I still turn for inspiration. Though no music by either composer is quoted, the general references to each will be obvious even to a casual listener.
The Magellanic Clouds (Nubeculae magellani) are two bright nebulae visible from the southern hemisphere, used by the earliest sailors (and ultimately Magellan, hence their current designation) as important aids to navigation. Their appearance in the title refers not only to Debussy and Stravinsky, my chosen "navigators" in this piece, but also to something more general, personal, and extra-musical. Among the remedies the great seventeenth-century English prose writer Robert Burton prescribes in his Anatomy of Melancholy as solace for the misfortunes of the human condition is the observation of the night sky. With the nebulae of the title standing in for all the stars, "The Clouds of Magellan" is my own metaphorical contemplation of the heavens, a musical attempt to "exhilarate a sorrowful heart," in Burton's evocative words, through "Topick starres, apertio portarum, in the Dodecotemories or constellations, the Moones mansions, such aspects of Planets, such winds, or dissolving Ayre."
3-9 Fancies and Goodnights (1994)
This work was written in 1994 for the ensemble Ciosoni (Michael Cameron, bassist; Timothy Lane, flutist; and Eric Mandat, clarinetist), is in seven interconnected movements, and lasts about twenty minutes.
The goodnights and fancies of the title (a phrase from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part II) are intended here as emblems for two musical types that make up the piece, the nocturne and fantasia. The trio's equilibrium lies perhaps in the fourth and sixth movements, the longest of the seven; each is a slow, elegiac nocturne. The remaining five movements are all brief fantasias, fast, intense, high-strung in character, and either closely related thematically or frankly repetitive. The division of slow and fast into separate movements is not absolute, however; Fantasia III dissolves into anticipations of the following nocturne, and both nocturnes are disrupted by unsettled memories of the fantasias.
During the course of the work there is an accompanied solo for each instrument, the clarinet in the second fantasia, the flute and double bass in the first and second nocturnes, respectively. All seven movements are played without pause.
10 Black Fugatos (1983)
"Black Fugatos" was commissioned by the Halcyon Ensemble, a chamber group formed by members of the Cleveland Orchestra (Martha Aarons, Laura Okuniewski, Gino Raffaelli, Gary Stucka and Richard Weiner), and was first performed in Severance Hall by the Ensemble in May 1983. The character of the music —a dark and somber web of counterpoint—is evoked by the two words of the title, which I found in a poem by Wallace Stevens only after the music had been completed.
Except at certain prominent moments, the score is unsynchronized: the players are rhythmically and metrically independent of each other, and the individual parts are coordinated by a system of visual cues. The entire piece is restricted to a very limited compass of pitch, register, and dynamics. Each instrument, either by its very nature or the manner in which it is played, is muted and suppressed. Within these confines, however, each performer is asked to play with great intensity. The effect made by the piece in live performance is utterly different from a recording; absent the crucial visual element of a performance and the physical distance of the ensemble from the audience, we decided somewhat paradoxically to simulate the muted intensity of a concert performance by miking the players very closely.
The black fugatos are strumming the blacknesses of black...
The thick strings stutter the finial gutturals.
(Wallace Stevens, "Madame La Fleurie")
11-12 In the Country of Last Things, for voice & ensemble (1999)
The title (with thanks to Paul Auster) of these two Pablo Neruda settings implies a work solely about finality and endings. A clumsier but more accurate title might include the word first as well as last, since the initial poem, "Mareas," is a metaphor for beginnings, while only the second, "Tierra, devuélveme," concerns ultimate things.
Although the poems were written decades apart (1964 and 1935, respectively) and span several radical changes in Neruda's style, to my mind they form a complementary pair. Both are celebratory, with Neruda praising the mortal error of birth and death, to borrow Dylan Thomas's words. And in each, as in many of his other poems, Neruda becomes an introspective observer of natural phenomena, passionately examining the living forms around him as if they alone could explain the meaning of his own existence.
Both songs are sung in the original Spanish. The melodic writing in most of "Mareas" (Tides) is recitative- and even chant-like, with instrumental solos and interludes extending and developing the vocal line. The vocal fioriture and their enveloping harmonies grow more elaborate over the course of the song, much as the text itself suggests, like a gradual encrustation of coral. The setting of "Tierra, devuélveme" (Earth, give me back) is texturally dense, largely fast, metrically and rhythmically complex, and speeds the work to a quick, abrupt ending.
The work as a whole is a memorial to personal first and last things. "Mareas" is dedicated to the memory of Robert Beadell, my first composition teacher and mentor; and "Tierra, devuélveme" to the memory of my aunt Margaret Stanley Hall, who gave me my first glimpse into the music of Stravinsky, Ives and Varèse when I was a child.
Indiana University New Music Ensemble;
Bruce Bransby (Double Bass), Eli Eban (Clarinet), Kathryn Lukas (Piccolo), Bridget Parker (voice)
Eugene O'Brien - Fulbright, Rome Prize, Guggenheim, and Rockefeller Foundation fellowships; commissions from the NEA, Koussevitzky and Fromm Foundations, and Meet the Composer/Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Fund. Performances by the Omaha Symphony, RAI Symphony Orchestra of Rome, the Cleveland Orchestra, and numerous soloists and ensembles. Awards from American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters, International Society for Contemporary Music, ASCAP and BMI. Works published by MMB, Boosey & Hawkes, and G. Schirmer, and recorded on the CRI, Golden Crest, Crystal and Capstone labels. Former faculty member, Cleveland Institute of Music and Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.
CREDITS & LINKS:
Recorded and edited by students of the IU Jacobs School of Music Audio Department
Produce by David Pickett and Eugene O'Brien
Executive Producer: Konrad Strauss
Graphic Design: Mike Cagle
Cover image from "The Southern Hemisphere of the Celestial Globe," by Albrecht Dürer, 1515
IU New Music Ensemble - www.indiana.edu/~nme/
IU Composition Department - http://www.music.indiana.edu/departments/academic/composition/index.shtml
IU Jacobs School of Music Marketplace - http://www.iumusicmarketplace.com
“Embarking for Cythera” © 1982 Boosey & Hawkes. All other works © Codex Nuovo (ASCAP).
Recording 2003 Trustees of Indiana University.
Program notes © 2003 Eugene O'Brien.