Gray Egg Music, Op. 35
Date of composition: 2010
Duration (approx.): 12 minutes
Instrumentation: Chamber Orchestra (1 Flute, 1 Oboe or Soprano Saxophone, 1 Bass Clarinet, 1 Bassoon, 1 Horn, 1 Trumpet, 1 Trombone, Timpani, 1 Violin, 1 Viola, 1 Violoncello, 1 Contrabass)
Gray Egg Music is a work for a 12-player chamber orchestra, cast in a single movement. I began composing it in December 2009, essentially completing it in March 2010, with some slight revisions in 2011. It is indicative of my present interest in absurdity—a trend carried through with my other recent works, such the piano quartet miniature Statue With Whole Wheat Bagels, and the unusual sextet Dust, Op. 36.
The rather bizarre title was originally conceived as a sort of oddly self-deprecating humor—the notion of a hard-boiled egg (a food item I find especially unpalatable) that had been sitting out, unrefrigerated, for a day or two, discoloring, reeking of gaseous hydrogen sulfide. However, as I’ve lived with the piece, I’ve found the title to work on other levels as well. Most audibly, there is a sense of gloomy or foreboding (“gray”) ideas in the piece, getting prankishly “egged” throughout, evoking the sense of being at a solemn event but, for some reason, having an inappropriate and inescapable urge to laugh.
The overall form works on several asynchronous layers. In terms of main thematic and motivic material, it is nearly palindromic (ABCBDEDCBA), but a tempo scheme of Moderate-Fast-Slow-Moderate is imposed over it, and various motivic elements from different parts of the piece are often interleaved in Stravinsky-style blocks, to aid in disguising the form. It is in many ways an example of my efforts to seek the interesting rather than the beautiful, and in many ways is decidedly anti-melodic, though somehow can become ingrained in one’s musical memory as if it were.
The piece begins rather suddenly, in a state of extraordinary sparseness and timidity—as if it can’t start. In some ways, I feel this is a symbolic representation of my emerging from a lengthy period of compositional block that preceded this piece. Isolated gestures often marked by extended techniques (flutter-tongue in the flute, sul ponticello in the upper strings), evoke a sort of faint, spectral snickering. These ideas kinetically build up to become more present (but no less ridiculous), as the music devolves into a sort of deformed “hoedown” (as noted in the flute and violin parts), transitioning into an oppressively Passacaglia-like section, which is repeatedly thwarted by inappropriate interruptions. These interruptions eventually take over, before coming to a confrontation with an even-keeled “middle ground”: a Dorian mode idea calmly asserted by the horn and strings. This idea eventually gains a foothold, only to be thwarted by a lethargic statement of the Passacaglia in the wrong key, and a reverse-order reprise of the opening material.
This work also marks my first real use of the so-called “Gray Egg Chord”, a quintal sonority that is native to the base mode of the piece (D-A-E-flat-B), which has become a recurring feature in my most recent compositional output.