Passionate Armistice (2011) (8′)
April 15, 2011
Berkshire Symphony, Ronald Feldman, conductor
I started work on this piece after encountering the fifth movement of Hans Otte’s Das Buch der Klange (The Book of Sounds), an hour-long suite for solo piano. I first heard the movement in Jean-Luc Godard’s 2004 film Notre Musique, where it was presented as the sole audio for the film’s brief first act, a catalogue of images of war and suffering without commentary. What was arresting about the music was its harmonic palette—of a kind with Messiaen’s, yet flirting with jazz—and its expression within an unrelenting ostinato. I began imagining the possibilities of a music that would likewise deploy dense, dissonant, yet still distantly familiar harmonies (largely tertian, with some quartal excursions) within a heavily rhythmic framework.
The decision to title the work “Passionate Armistice” came much later. Whereas I had spent about five months on the short score, it was during the month I spent working up the fully orchestrated version that I decided to use the title to draw a connection to research I had done the previous year in a music history course on Wagner’s vision for overture form. One essay, “Gluck’s Overture to Iphigenia in Aulis,” argued that the best overtures eschew symphonic techniques of development and forceful resolution in favor of simpler changes of motive that correspond to some degree with the resolution of the drama. Wagner then takes the opportunity to praise himself a bit. Since Gluck’s overture, in its original form, transitions into the first scene without closure, Wagner composed a closed ending for concert purposes. He then wrote that the way in which he reprised Gluck’s first theme for an ending established an “armistice” between the themes, “though no full peace.” In my composition, the theme that emerges from the opening ostinato is recalled at the end, yet it establishes no full peace with the secondary theme that pervades much of the rest of the piece. Feeling the urge to mix metaphors, I then took the armistice metaphor and enriched it by referencing a second essay, “On the Overture,” where Wagner offers his assessment of Don Giovanni that it is replete with “the transfiguring light of music as a passion personified in tones.” Sure, I was glad to have an evocative title, but I also think the title explains what I was about in writing a 7-minute piece for orchestra.