for large orchestra (2006) – 17 minutes
Winner of the 2007 Rudolf Nissim Prize, ASCAP Foundation
Winner of the Juilliard Orchestra Competition
Orchestration: 3333, 4321, 3 perc, pno/hp, strings: 16, 16, 12, 8, 8
World Premiere: 5 May, 2006, Juilliard Symphony, Jeffrey Milarsky, conductor, Alice Tully Hall, New York
Recording: Bowling Green Philharmonia, Emily Freeman Brown, conductor
Actually, Billy’s outward listlessness was a screen.
The listlessness concealed a mind which was fizzing and thrashing thrillingly.
It was preparing letters and lectures about flying saucers,
the negligibility of death, and the true nature of time.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
The inspiration for Unstuck came from my experience of witnessing the progressive cognitive decline of two of my grandparents who were afflicted with dementia. Like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the protagonists in this journey become “unstuck in time,” inwardly traveling back and forth together through their fractured lives via the chaotic reliving of memories, fragmented and distorted by the disease. The process inevitably spirals out of control, the downward trajectory punctuated by intermittent echoes of lucidity that fizz to the surface in the tangled cauldron of a mind in turmoil.
Throughout the piece, coherent musical fragments are misplaced and divorced from their original contexts. Ultimately, the once-meaningful phrases become shorter and shorter until they are no longer recognizable. The first movement, “Fizzing and Thrashing,” opens with three conspicuous but fragmentary “endings”—quoted from Gustav Holst, Tomás Luis de Victoria, and Gustav Mahler—each of which fail, leaving a shattered and unsettled sonic landscape in their wake.
From the static chords that smolder at the opening of the second movement, “Tangles and Spirals,” emerges an evocative melody in the strings. Faint images of itself float around it like ghosts of another time. The brass play quoted fragments of the sublime motet “O Magnum Mysterium” of Renaissance composer Luis Victoria, whose ending we have already heard in the first movement. This motet returns again and again, at times clearly and directly, and at times distorted almost beyond recognition. In a fleeting moment of clarity, a series of canons begins, each imitating the canonic opening of the Victoria motet. Unlike the balanced and controlled canons of the Renaissance motet, however, these canons ascend unchecked, spiraling into the stratosphere, until they are ultimately overtaken by the inevitable collapse of recognizable structures into a mass of twisted debris.
In “Listlessness,” the familiar canons take a new form. The melodic subject is an ascending line, but now each new canonic imitation begins slightly lower than the last. The canon follows its inexorable descent to the lowest notes of the orchestra, until it is gone. Life breathes its last breath, the mind becomes outwardly flat, and peace and acceptance are reached.
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