Dust, Op. 36
Date of composition: 2011
Duration (approx.): 13 minutes
Instrumentation: Mixed Sextet (Flute, Horn, Violin, Viola, Violoncello, and Celesta)
Performed by Rianna Cohen, flute; Caitlin Brody, horn; Wyatt True, violin; Andrew Stiefel, viola; Alexander LaFollett, violoncello; Evan C. Paul, celesta; Jacob Walls, conductor. Aasen-Hull Hall at the University of Oregon. Eugene, Oregon. March 2012.
Dust is designed as a musical essay in absurdity. It is scored for the very unusual ensemble of flute, horn, violin, viola, violoncello and celesta, a grouping that provided some rather unique possibilities in terms of timbre and musical character. It is cast in three movements: a Prelude, a deformed Waltz (“False triste”), and a Barcarolle. The importance of the number three also plays in other ways. Triple-meter ideas dominate the piece, and often clash with duple and quadruple-meter ideas, either through interruption (e.g. 2/4 or 4/4 bars interloping into predominantly 3/4 meter ideas) or interpolation (e.g. three eighth-notes against two dotted eighth-notes—a sesquialtera).
The title works on a couple of levels. The piece deals with traditional formal structures on a much more conscious (rather than intrinsic and subconscious) basis than in most of my music—-the “dust” is being brushed off these forms, if you will, giving the piece a somewhat neo-classical flavor. The third movement even goes as far as to use something resembling sonata-allegro form. Additionally, I feel there is some sort of strangely nostalgic (“dusty”?) air about this piece, brought on by the rather strange timbral balance. To an extent, it sounds like a long lost Stravinsky ballet from the late-1910s.
The Prelude is initially quite stormy in nature, with the initial tempo and character (paradoxically) qualified as “Still, uneasy”—one of many rather peculiar expressive markings I used in the score. I composed this movement first, and initially gave it the rather unwieldy working title, “Dancing Naked Man Wearing Wooden Mask Near Traffic Signal”, inspired by a rather strange sight encountered on a late-night motorscooter ride up Eugene’s Coburg Road a few years ago. The opening is marked by thick, strident harmonies, punctuating episodes of bizarre counterpoint. There is a brief reprieve from this storm about halfway through, in the form of a peculiar, rustic dance, inundated with interlocking string pizzicati.
The second movement is labeled “False triste”, a (rather horrible) bilingual pun on Valse triste (French, “sad waltz”), the well-known Jean Sibelius piano composition (later orchestrated). The “false” refers to the fact that traditional triple-meter waltz feel is repeatedly interrupted by “wrong meters”, and coupled with the rather odd polymodal chromaticism in the initial theme’s harmonization, there is a sense of a sort of stately “fake sadness” in a “Petrushkan” way. I composed this movement in a sudden flash of inspiration after completing the two outer movements, over the course of two days.
The third movement is labeled as a “Barcarolle”, and like many pieces carrying that title, is in 6/8 meter and features lyrical lines evocative of Venetian gondolier song. However, any gondolier who would sing this would probably have to be insane, or a fellow Milhaud enthusiast (possibly both), as the lyricism is plagued by polytonality. The end of the “exposition” and start of the “development” section of the alleged sonata-allegro form here is punctuated by a gesture that is marked in the score as being “sneeze-like” (with the celesta part being marked “naively, as if nothing happened”). Much as with Gray Egg Music, Dust’s “Barcarolle” has an “anti-ending”—the reprise of the second theme in the “recapitulation” spirals out of control and awkwardly disintegrates, and strangely cadences on G.