Commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Instrumentation: Chamber orchestra (126.96.36.199 - 188.8.131.52 - timp - str)
storm, rose, tiger
The title is adapted from a phrase in Borges' short story The Circular Ruins. Amongst many other things, this story is an allegory of the creative process, narrating a magician's attempts to dream a human being in minute detail, dedicating himself to the task with such fervent passion that the dream-creature becomes a living man. It is a strange and compelling story, with a great deal of resonance for me as a composer: the magician's struggles as he strives to bring his creation into focus, his commitment, his bouts of self-doubt, his decision to destroy what he has made and start again, the bittersweetness with which he sends his work out into the world; all these are familiar waypoints on the creative journey.
Rather than a programmatic mirroring of the story through music, there were two features in particular which seemed to relate to musical processes I was interested in exploring, and so provided the starting point for work on the piece. The first feature is the idea of bringing something in and out of focus, of 'seeing' musical material more or less clearly, perhaps like the sort of transformations we experience in dreams. The second is the fundamentally repetitive nature of the magician's task, its incremental nature, night after night. The musical analogue I planned was to explore three types of material in sequence (storm; rose; tiger - though these are to an extent arbitrary labels rather than descriptions), repeating the succession several times and transforming each component through expansion or compression, whilst playing with ideas of 'focus' within each section.
Such was the plan, but music often has a mind of its own. While this was my starting point and many of the above elements will be readily audible, the finished piece follows its own logic.
I have made extensive use of so-called 'microtones', particularly in the latter sections of the piece. These are notes that lie outside our familiar western 12-note scale and, in my music, are derived from quarter-tone approximations of the harmonic series. These unusual pitches serve two roles: to blur on the one hand and to evoke a new musical landscape on the other. The blurring occurs as bending and glissandos around standard pitch-units, an offshoot of my initial thoughts on types of focus. The 'new musical landscape' comes from using harmony where notes outside a piano keyboard are an integral feature. Here the term 'microtone' is something of a misnomer, as I never use an interval smaller than a standard semitone; rather I am interested in those larger intervals that fall in the gaps - a semitone and a half, for example, or the interval between a major third and minor third - that give the harmony a special and often (to my mind) glowing, radiant quality. In short, I am aiming for a special type of beauty that the microtonal resource enables.
storm, rose, tiger falls into a number of distinct sections. A turbulent opening gives way on its repeat to a long melody in the winds. The strings shadow this wind line and gradually overwhelm it with ornamentation. There follows a grotesque dance, after which there is a return to the opening material presented in greatly expanded form: intensely expressive string polyphonies eventually freeze into simple harmonies, while sotto voce winds create increasingly elaborate patterns. The final section is a passacaglia, circling around a repeating modal (microtonal) pattern, beginning with the violins alone and eventually incorporating the entire orchestra.