Seeing the Small in the Large, (Six Movements for Orchestra)

1998 to 1999

[SCORE AVAILABLE FOR DOWNLOAD—PARTS COMING SOON] For full orchestra; always transforming and evolving musical shapes are arranged to create a rich counterpoint language; sixteen themes and their mutations appear in six movements set against the background of an anchor theme like rocks in a Zen garden; movements entitled, I. Melody–A Luminous Calm (Prologue), II. Idea–Seeing Mountains Through Spiders’ Webs, III. Nature–Growing Sounds, IV. Mood–When the Ground Screams, V. Spirit–Dragon Veins, and VI. Melody–As if in Clouds (Epilogue).

Program Notes
Seeing the Small in the Large is a twist on the conventional notion of seeing the universe in a grain of sand. It is a musical celebration of growth, transformation, and youthful energy, in which we see a grain of sand when viewing the entire cosmos. It is also a garden of always-transforming musical shapes and contrapuntal textures developed through techniques I have termed melodic transformation and melodic evolution. From this transformational counterpoint, diverse musical forms emerge and grow, and melodic shapes intertwine like vines, trees, and shrubs, all sharing the same space, adapting their growth patterns, changing their forms, one into another, bending their contours, now accentuating one feature, now exaggerating another, now diminishing still another. When melodic evolution appears, we hear the shape of one melody being continuously varied in its up-and-down, pitch contour and rhythm until it begins to sound like another theme and vice versa. This always happens with pairs of melodies, though sometimes multiple pairs evolve at the same time. From this fertile ground of transforming shapes, harmonic forms emerge, reaching for sources of energy and producing an elaborate, lush forest of rich growth forms with their attendant dramas of interactive, symbiotic shaping.

This flora of musical shapes is supported when necessary by a harmonic construction I call expanding chords. These harmonies are built by starting with two modes (scales), recombining features of the two modes, and building symmetrical (i.e. major-minor, harmonic-sub-harmonic), vertical constructions on the notes of the recombinant mode. Then, the internal symmetries are broken by choosing a privileged note in the mode, because of some particularity of its setting, and building expanding dyads (two-note sets with increasing interval sizes) using notes from the recombinant mode. The harmonic space between the two notes of each dyad are, then, filled in to make chords with notes taken from the vertical constructions. These are chosen either by referencing (privileging) the melody, upper tones, or the roots, lower tones. Many sets of chords and chord progressions are, thus, produced, each with its own sense of harmonic distance from a reference or key tone. Harmonies are drawn from these sets to form the tonal matrix of the composition. The starting modes are not chosen arbitrarily. Rather, they come from an initial, melodic inspiration, which begins the whole process. Usually, this melodic idea has at least two tonal identities. Thus, the identification of the two modes follows naturally.

Sixteen themes appear in the complete work. Each is like a genetic proscription, a beginning for transformations to come. I think of these themes like rocks in a Japanese, Zen garden, such as Royanji. Each theme or melodic rock is placed carefully in its position against the ground or sand of one particular theme, called the anchor theme. The anchor theme is the substrate of the garden. It is an exuberantly romantic melody, a celebration of growth, which only appears in its unaltered form at the very end of the work, in Movement VI. Consequently, if this were compared to the familiar theme and variations, it would be like hearing all the variations first and, then, finally, hearing the theme from which everything else is derived at the end. In our case, we hear many transformations of this theme throughout the six movements of the piece, often highly disguised, before we hear it unaltered. Each movement is defined by two to five of the other theme rocks. In almost every case, these themes are made to evolve towards and, then, away from the anchor theme. Thus, the theme rocks become seeds for sixteen families of forms, which interact in subgroups within each of the four inner movements and always include a transformation of the anchor theme.

The six movements outline a cyclic progression among ways of thinking about human expression, represented in the arrangements of the rock garden, from melody, to idea, to nature, to mood, to spirit, and back to melody. In Movement I, Melody—A Luminous Calm (Prologue), which sets the stage for the idea of melody, the anchor theme is the basis of everything; though, again, we never hear it in its original form. This movement is atmospheric and portentous, and the anchor theme is imbedded inside a violin solo at the end. In Movement II, Idea—Seeing Mountains Through Spiders' Webs, we observe something large, a mountain, through the orienting geometry or measuring grid of the naturally produced, spider's web, like the astronomer who sees the universe through a graticule placed inside a telescope. Movement III, Nature—Growing Sounds, portrays the silent, but relentless movement of slow growth, like the sound of corn growing, and explores the poignancy of juxtaposing growing pains with growing sounds and the happiness of both. Movement IV, Mood—When the Ground Screams, refers to the messages we receive from the ground on which we stand. The two most prominent characteristics of this movement are transformed melodies with grace notes and a fast-cycling rhythm, in which a short melodic pattern is transformed and re-combined in myriad ways to produce a hard driving, rhythmic cascade. It is intended that the grace-note melodies be stretched away from a classically elegant, Western interpretation, towards the sense of bent-pitch ornamentation in certain kinds of Asian, bamboo flute music. The movement builds momentum as the short pattern cycles, constantly changing, evolving towards and away from the anchor theme while being combined with the ornamented melodies. Poignant, freely interpreted, instrumental solos bracket the movement. The dragon of Movement V, Spirit—Dragon Veins, is of the Eastern mind, deified by Taoism, a mysterious symbol of good fortune, not the one of the Western mind, an object of terror and portentous omens to be slain by a would-be hero. The Earth’s mountain peaks, ridges, and hills are visible manifestations of our dragon’s veins, channels for the flow of ch’i, the natural, potential energy of the Earth. These veins must not be severed, however, lest misfortune ensue from the chaotic flow of energy, unleashed from the gapping wound. Two dance-like sections in triple and duple meters grow from this spirit of ch’i. After an exposition of intricate, transformational counterpoint, thematic mutations set in complex hocket patterns settle into a ground ostinato, against which more punctuated variations are set for brass and piccolo. The second part begins slowly and accelerates through a whirling, canonic cascade and chorale to a fanfare-like ending for the dance. The final Movement VI, Melody—As If in Clouds (Epilogue), is, again, set in two parts. The first takes a fragment of the anchor theme through a continuously rising cycle of pitch modulations, beginning with the lowest contrabasses and ending with a very high-pitched, distant, off-stage piccolo. This is reminiscent of a spiral canon or canon per tonos. (In a spiral canon, the melody ends on a tone that is one note higher than where it starts. In this canon, however, each fragment ends paradoxically a major third below its beginning, while the overall continues to ascend.) Numerous, antecedents for such ascending music have inspired me. These include Bach’s “Ascendente modulatione ascendet gloria regis,” i.e., “May the glory of the king rise as the modulation ascends,” from the Musical Offering, and those who have experimented with a psychoacoustic illusion known as the “audio barber pole,” or Shepard tones, which seem to glissando upward endlessly, (ref. R. Shepard, J.C. Risset, and J. Tenney). After the music returns to stillness, the anchor theme, from which so much of the transformed material in the preceding movements is derived, is finally heard in its full-blown, romantic splendor. At the very end, a reminder of the rising theme fades through harmonic clouds into the melodious sky.

Seeing the Small in the Large was composed originally for the Orchestra Da Camera of the Colburn School of Performing Arts in Los Angeles, the Idyllwild Arts Symphony Orchestra, and their director, Richard Rintoul. Much of the music was written in practice rooms and other places in and around these orchestras’ activities, while I observed these talented, young musicians at work.

DR, March 29, 1998, revised, February 9, 2000
David Rosenboom Publishing (BMI), Santa Clarita, California and Frog Peak Music