The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying
for String Orchestra (2012)
First performance: April 12, 2013; Yale Philharmonia Strings, Ani Kavafian, concertmaster; Carnegie Hall (New York, New York)
Commissioned by Yale University
Orchestration: strings (220.127.116.11.3)
The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying (1651)
A man is a bubble, (said the Greek proverb), which Lucian represents with advantages and its proper circumstances, to this purpose; saying, that all the world is a storm, and men rise up in their several generations, like bubbles descending a Jove pluvio, from God and the dew of heaven, from a tear and drop of rain, from nature and Providence; and some of these instantly sink into the deluge of their first parent, and are hidden in a sheet of water, having had no other business in the world, but to be born, that they might be able to die: others float up and down two or three turns, and suddenly disappear and give their place to others: and they that live longest upon the face of the waters are in perpetual motion,restless and uneasy, and being crushed with a great drop of a cloud, sink into flatness and a froth; the change not being great, it being hardly possible it should be more a nothing that it was before.
I reread Jeremy Taylor’s exquisite sentence, the opening of The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying, throughout my compositional process but, in composing my work, I was not, beyond a general stormy affect in the middle section, musically illustrating Taylor’s imagery. Rather, Taylor’s rhetoric –veering between violent and delicate imagery, and structure, its pauses unable to halt a powerful trajectory, inspired me to compose this work as a type of memento mori. Giving abstract music expressive titles is rare for me, and in any case is a tricky process. But in the wake of recent losses, both personal and national, I was moved even moved by Taylor’s text –a potent emblem of the fragility and precariousness of life.
On a purely technical level, the work is a summation of my work for strings over the last decade, especially my three string quartets composed for the Arditti and JACK Quartets. More than any overdetermining system, my work is governed by the physicality of the instruments and is marked by the gradual introduction of different playing techniques: glassy harmonics, skittish string-crossings, snap pizzicato, or even brutal sawing, often resolving once more to an uneasy calm. I embrace aspects of high modernism - albeit critically, and attempt is create something viscerally expressive, dramatically structured, using pulsing rhythmic energy to veers between extremes of fragility and violence.
While my work has used scrapping sounds for almost ten years, after watching a recent documentary on Gerhard Richter’s process, I was struck by the aural similarities created by his process which entails dragging a scrapper across the canvas over freshly-applied paint. Scrapping that yields texture and color is important in my work. The subtitle is a nod to Richter, a constant source of inspiration.
That said, the initial juxtapositions that inspired this work are more personal. I was asked to compose a work to accompany Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings shortly after my grandfather’s passing. Its impossible for me think of either Strauss or my grandfather without thinking of Munich in the spring of 1945, the time when Strauss was finishing (and a bit too ambiguously dedicating) Metamorphosen. Only a few miles a way, American soldiers liberated Dachau and my grandfather was among the soldiers that aided the victims and then escorted them south through Strauss’ Garmisch, to Salzburg and on to the Hungarian border. It is dedicated to him, and to my grandmother, who passed away shortly before I finished this work, in memoriam.