VIEW SCORE (excerpt): Quartet in Four Actions (SCORE–PDF)
I had spent the last couple of years consumed mostly with large-ensemble music—two substantial orchestra works, a large, one-movement wind ensemble piece, a choir and percussion work, and two pieces for the University of Texas New Music Ensemble, consisting of 13 instruments. Wedged in between these was a short trio for flute, oboe, and percussion, a piece that I didn’t end up being very happy with (not to mention that it was for such a weird group of instruments!), so when Chad Burrow approached me about the possibility of my writing something for BrightMusic as their second annual commission of a new work, I was thrilled at the chance to write a major work for a small ensemble, especially one for a group of such excellent players. As we discussed the piece, we finalized the group—clarinet, violin, cello, and piano—and discussed a length of around 12 minutes.
My sketching began with the first gesture of the piece—a high, shrill set of major chords unrelated by key, set off with a low interruption by the piano. I spent a couple of weeks working with this idea and its implications, trying to crystallize some nebulous ideas about a slow movement and a fast conclusive movement before I realized that these ideas were going to generate a pretty monstrous piece of four movements and around 20 minutes in length. As composer etiquette goes, one should make sure that such a violation of the established parameters is OK with the performing group, so I told Chad about my new plan, and, after freaking out a bit for a moment, he agreed that this would be fine.
In sketching the work, I had thought mostly of the gestures that would begin each movement and the contrasting spirit of each movement rather than a title or overarching idea for the whole piece. I wanted each of the movements to fulfill its own logic and adhere to its own mood (though some melodic themes and interval/note sets do unify the movements and define an overall structure). I decided first on “Float” as a title for the second movement, and then on “Rush” for the alternately frenzied and calm first movement. The title then emerged—Quartet in Four Actions referring to the four action words in the movement titles. The last movement is the only one with a truly extramusical or programmatic element, in that “whirl” is a reference to the children’s game “helicopter” in which one twirls about, arms out, while looking at the sky, until dizziness overtakes the senses and the player falls down. Thus, the last movement is meant to be frenetic, unbridled, joyful, and somewhat “blurry” at times until finally spinning out of control and “falling down” at the close.