Program note for Quiet Music
Quiet Music was commissioned by the Fromm Music Foundation for the American Composers Orchestra, which premiered it in 1994 at Carnegie Hall under the direction of Dennis Russell Davies. I made the two-piano version in 2001. The piece is in one movement lasting about 14 minutes.
I like to work within constraints. In Quiet Music, two of them are immediately audible; one was intended, the other not. The intended constraint is that at every point until the final sonority there are running sixteenth notes somewhere in the musical fabric, a feature that I adapted from an earlier orchestra piece, Waves. In both cases the purpose was to establish a regular rhythmic background against which other rhythms could play. In Waves, the sixteenth notes propel the music forward in an agitated manner, but here the pace is slower and the effect is more like that of a flowing river. The unintended constraint is that the entire work is to be played pianissimo. As I was composing I tried to build dynamic climaxes, but the music resisted so strongly that I was forced to realize that its essential impulse was to speak in a hushed voice. Consequently, the means of achieving tension and climax are displaced from dynamics onto texture and density (and, in the orchestral version, instrumentation).
A third, more subtle constraint is that Quiet Music employs a consistent formal process, overlapping expanding variations, that I have used in several pieces but which I carry here to an extreme of structural strictness and polyphonic virtuosity. Each strand grows from a single melodic or harmonic cell that elaborates into complexity until it reaches a point of saturation. By this point another strand has already begun a similar process in another layer. Some strands expand and then contract, in a kind of palindrome, to their original cells. Sometimes there are three or four strands going on at once.
The expressive world of Quiet Music seems far from considerations of pre-compositional constraints. It is one of my most intimate works, an internal reverie of magical textures and shifting soundscapes.
The two-piano version inevitably produces a different experience than the original orchestral piece. The running-sixteenth aspect is more foregrounded. The loss in instrumental color and architecture is compensated by a gain in harmonic and textural clarity and shading.