“Tenebrae” (2008). for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano

Tenebrae was written in fulfillment of a commission from the New York New Music Ensemble. One of the main issues I dealt with in composing Tenebrae was the exploration of methods of transition between various types of timbral/harmonic constructs.  Forward motion and formal narrative relies on gradual transformative processes that change one structural harmony into another.  For instance, the transition leading up to the final climactic moment is entirely built of a series of interpolated harmonies between two ‘bookend’ harmonies.  The first of these harmonies was created by re-synthesizing a timbre created through FM synthesis.  The arrival harmony, one one that is stretched out leading up to the high flute note, is built around a central pitch around which intervals are mirrored.  What was attractive about this idea is that the sidebands created through FM synthesis are mirrored frequencies around the carrier in the first harmony, and this whole structure gradually changes to one created by the mirroring of intervals in the second harmony.  There are a couple other interesting timbres/harmonies worth mentioning.  Near the middle of the work are bell-like sounds created by the piano and cello pizzicato notes.  These sounds are derived from spectral analyses of several bell timbres including tibetan prayer bells, grandfather clock chimes, and even one from Big Ben.

The instruments of the ensemble (particularly the bass clarinet) also provided me with the spectral DNA for several sections–there are a couple places where the odd partials that give that instrument it’s color are presented as an orchestrated harmony played by the entire ensemble.  A moment that is particularly attractive to my ear is a timbre involving a stack of quarter tone-inflected pitches that were re-synthesized from the sound of a stainless steel bowl.  This harmony appear near the beginning of the work and is brief, but it is presented in such a manner as to be distinctly important.  Near the end of the work, the same chord reappears and is truncated by a piano block chord–and in this new context, it is the piano that sounds “out of tune”.

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