|Numinous The Music of Joseph C. Phillips Jr.|
The Numinosum Blog
Next Thursday is the premiere of my composition, Liquid Timepieces, commissioned by pianist Simone Dinnerstein for her Neighborhood Concert Series. It was written for and will be performed by the wonderful student group Face the Music on April 15th 7p.m. at the P.S. 321 auditorium.
The years 2010 and 2011 are the anniversaries of Gustav Mahler’s birth (1850) and death (1911). I wanted to celebrate these so-called ‘Jubilee Years’ by writing a work that honors the profound influence Mahler’s music has exerted on my own musical development and thinking. Liquid Timepieces is my own musical encomium to him and despite some subtle references to musical moments from Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, No. 3, and No. 9, Liquid Timepieces is not meant to sound like Mahler. Rather, I hoped, through my own distinct musical expression and language, to create a similar resonance to the protean spirit of life and the world that permeates his works.
The evocative phrase, "liquid timepieces," comes from a line in the poem "Designer Kisses" by Major Jackson. I heard Major Jackson recite the poem himself last summer at the 2009 River to River Festival Poets House tribute to Meredith Monk. I didn't remember much from the poem at the time except this one phrase that stuck out and I wrote down:
We’re laid out like liquid timepieces, each other’s exercise
In perpetual enchantment, for there is that beach in us that is untranslatable
Liquid Timepieces, scored for Flute, Bb Clarinet, Alto Saxophone, Electric Guitar, 2 Electric Keyboards, and a small string section (violins, violas, cellos, bass), opens with a declarative concert G# played in various octaves by all of the instruments (see above photo of the first page to the score). This iteration of the G# becomes a recurring character throughout the piece: sometimes as a waylayer, sometimes as an interrupter, and other times as a something that just needs to be heard amongst other things. A 'steady state' eighth note pulse begins in the keyboard (which you can also see above) and can be felt in various instruments throughout the first half of the composition, generally in the guise of little cells of rhythmic activity. This forward momentum continues until a longer lined melodic figure slowly becomes emergent; at first only in the cellos and bass, then more prominently in the violins and violas, and later the woodwinds join in as the sweeping melody builds to a higher yet softer place and as the rhythmic motion begins to lengthen, we arrive at a moment of slower repose.
Earlier I mentioned some connections to Mahler's music buried within Liquid Timepieces. At this median point in the music I wanted to highlight one of those connections which is decidedly on the surface.
The counterpoint in the above trio (in concert pitch and in 2/2 meter) between the flute, clarinet, and violin is consciously reminiscent of moments in Mahler's Ninth Symphony where the full orchestral texture is dropped for a more chamber music-like atmosphere. And the melody played by the clarinet above, comes directly from the wonderfully exalted horn melody in the last movement of Mahler's Ninth:
This melody, shown above in concert pitch in its first appearance, is generally marked in the score "stark hervortretend" (in marked prominence). Heard slightly different the few times in the Mahler movement it comes up, this phrase slices through the symphonic background texture like a fiery prophet coming out of the wilderness heralding wisdom and insight at precisely the moment needed. However, in Liquid Timepieces I use the melody more as a wise sage that modestly offers insight clothed as advice in personal choice and direction: it functions either as a sort of cantus firmus, just one part of an egalitarian melodic scheme (see above trio) or as an effect much like a musical palimpsest, where 'ghosts' of the Mahler melody are layered on top of each other to create a texture of weaving melodies. In the below excerpt from my score you can see I'm asking the musicians to gradually improvise with either a version of the actual Mahler melody (Synth 1 and Cello; Violin 2) or a modified retrograde version of it (Synth 2 and Viola). Not improvisation in a 'jazz' sense where the soloist tries to create variations on an original melody often not actually stating the melody, but rather improvisation where the musicians keep the melodic shape and tones intact, but change their rhythmic and temporal approaches to playing it.
The floating texture continues and builds as a simple bass melody enters, but gradually fades as rhythmic pulses, whiffs from the earlier steady state incarnation, begin to break through to the foreground from its background origin. Soon the eighth note pulses and a short, repeating musical cell that is a canon between the keyboard 1 and alto saxophone, clarinet, and keyboard 2, along with a spasmodic occurrence of that octave G# I spoke earlier about, all overlap each other and grow in intensity and excitement. This energy is dissipated somewhat by a final string melodic coda (a distance relative of the Mahler melody above) while insistent eighth note cells are heard in the woodwinds and keyboard 1. However, the melody and pulses soon escalate into a final resplendent flourish on G#.
I've been to a few of Face the Music's rehearsals of Liquid Timepieces, and while this is difficult music, the students are doing a wonderful job tackling not only the technical challenges but the musical and conceptual ones as well. I hope you can make it to next Thursday's premiere performance to hear for yourself.
POSTED BY NUMINOUS AT 7:00 AM
To all things that create a sense of wonder and beauty that inspires and enlightens.