Configurations

ENS.2008.13 | 22′
Poem by A.R. Ammons
Tenor & Oboe/Cor Anglais, Clarinet, Clarinet/Bass Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, Trumpet, Guitar, String Quartet

Score

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Configurations, for tenor and eleven instruments, is a setting of a poem by A.R. Ammons evoking, like most of his works, the natural world.

Although a happy coincidence, the title suggests the way this song-cycle works, with fourteen songs and an instrumental coda representing the fifteen possible permutations of the work’s four basic musical ideas. The first four songs introduce one “theme” apiece, each with a characteristic melodic and harmonic profile, all kept simple and modal so it’s easier to hear them combine later on. The next six songs pair the four ideas with one another, followed by four songs combining three ideas simultaneously, until finally in the coda all four ideas are heard together without the distraction of a vocal line.

The four themes are amalgamated in many different ways, from simply stacking one on top of another to more complicated operations like phasing and rhythmic compression. Sometimes the harmonies appear in different rhythmic guises or the melodies themselves create harmonies, but all basic harmonic relationships stay constant to preserve the cycle’s unity and allow its structure to remain audible. Nevertheless, hopefully every song has a separate identity, each with its own characteristic sound world.

The slightly unusual instrumentation was chosen to create an autumnal hue in keeping with the imagery of the poem, an earthy mix of leafs, birds, nests, bones and shrubs. Accordingly, there are no especially high or low instruments; a preponderance of woody, stringy textures dominates, with a tempering of warm brass. The solo tenor voice generally stays inside the ensemble rather than ranging above or below, the vocal line supported and colored by the instruments.

His freely composed vocal melodies provide counterpoint to the increasingly familiar basic musical ideas as they combine and recombine for the twenty minutes or so it takes to travel from a single instrument playing the first idea to the entire ensemble playing all four at once in an instrumental coda inspired by Schumann’s masterpiece Dichterliebe.