MARE VITALIS (World Premiere)
Part I: Breathmark - for solo piano
Part II: Townland - for string quartet and piano
Part III: Mistral - for string trio and organ
Breathmark is the first installment of Mare Vitalis, a three-part cycle of independent solo and chamber works, each inspired in a different way by the profound physical, cultural, and spiritual lives of the sea. Commissioned in memory of the celebrated pianist Claude Frank (Amy Yang’s teacher and mentor) this work explores the relationship between the human breath and musical performance, and imagines the ocean as a dynamic, regenerative, breathing organ from which life emerges, and to which it ultimately returns. With each deep breath, I imagine a soul at peace, soaring joyfully over a vast, unbroken expanse of water. The work’s initial tempo is established by the pace of the performer’s breathing. As the work continues, the phrases lengthen and the connection to the breath gradually becomes a metaphor. Only when we hold our breath does the world stand still.
Townland is the second installment of Mare Vitalis. Scored for piano quintet, Townland was inspired by an August 2015 visit to Newburyport. At the suggestion of David Yang, I visited the town along with Plum Island where I saw a particularly memorable sunrise and received a highly specific impression of a human place, its relationship to the world, and its situation by the sea. It was from this impression, and a feeling of connection that emerged for me between this New England town, my coastal childhood home of Santa Cruz, California, and, indeed, all small towns by the sea, that I was able to create Townland. As in the other works of the cycle, the predominant affect of Townland is one of simplicity and ease. The sustained meditation upon a series of related places—at specific times of day and a specific time of year—could only bring me into closer contact with the elusive ideal that we can all find for ourselves a home in the world. The work is not developmental in the traditional sense. Instead, an unadorned phrase in the lower strings gently expands and contracts, harmonized by slowly rising tones in the violins and punctuated by occasional interjections from the piano that are inspired by the sound—for me, a nostalgic one—of wind chimes. These minimal materials fill more sonic space as the work unfolds, but ultimately come to rest in the place where they began. Inspired by the impactfullness of place, and the beauty of a place, Townland is a quiet celebration of the peaceful stillness of being somewhere.
Mistral is the third installment of Mare Vitalis. Scored for the unusual quartet of violin, viola, cello, and organ, Mistral takes its inspiration from the wind, a force that has defined and empowered maritime communities for millennia and which, in captivity, so to speak, powers “the king of instruments.” Chamber music featuring the organ is exceedingly rare. Instead, the instrument has historically been called upon to accompany choirs in liturgical and concert settings, as a medium for virtuosic improvised or composed solo pieces, and as an occasional guest in monumental symphonic works. When cast in an intimate chamber setting, the organ’s magnitude cannot be ignored. The instrument is capable of producing a phenomenal quantity of sound. But unlike that of a wind or string instrument, this sound does not emanate from a fixed point on the stage but, instead, seems to emerge from the building’s architecture itself. Furthermore, in many cases, the performer is not visible to the audience, leaving the sound both disembodied and magnificent. In these circumstances, the sound of the organ does not discernibly come from a performer, but from the structural environment itself, giving it both an authority and a permanence unattainable by other instruments. The organ in Mistral is not a virtuoso or an accompanist, but rather a static, inexorable force, a monumental natural background in front of which an intimate, deeply human performance takes place. In this sense, the musical structure mirrors the physical circumstances of the performance: three small humans perform in front of the massive edifice of the organ. This structure also reflects the relationship between humans and the wind: we are often able to harness this great power, and to live comfortably in its presence, but we can never alter its course.
Notes by the composer