If Not, Winter

ENS.2007.12 | 8.11.07-8.15.07 | 15’
Lyric Soprano, Piccolo, Bass Clarinet, Baritone Sax, Horn, C Trumpet, Tuba, Vibraphone, Marimba, Piano, Violin, Cello, Bass

Midi Rendition of “If Not, Winter”

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If Not, Winter
Poems by Sappho, Translated by Anne Carson in “If Not, Winter”

If Not, Winter first suggested itself to me from a purely technical standpoint. There are twelve scale degrees and two basic kinds of triads, major and minor. Thus there are forty-six possible two-part permutations of major and minor triads, and I set myself the task of composing a piece which exhausted these possibilities as its principle organizing structural device. Because each section would consist entirely of an oscillation between two chords, in addition I determined that the length of each chord should also follow a permutational series, each measure being of a given length, calculated in eighth notes.

This structure being set, I sought a series of texts short enough that each section would not last too long. It seemed obvious I should use some kind of fragments, so I looked to the past. Fragments of ancient poetry have always held a certain fascination; from the Lyra Graeca to Guy Davenport’s lapidary translations, these evocative shards not only hold the tantalizing promise of great works lost to time but stand as extraordinarily beautiful miniatures on their own. In fact, when Davenport’s translations of Archilochos were first published, they were accused of being modernist hoaxes!

The great poet, thinker, and translator Anne Carson made a gorgeous version of Sappho’s poetry, If Not, Winter, which was published in a gorgeous edition with two colors and a page layout that dramatized the broken remains she worked from. From these scraps I selected ninety-two to set, moving through my structure twice. As I composed, however, I found the piece naturally settling into a three-part arc, fast-slow-fast, so I reached the end nearer to seventy sections; of course I then settled on sixty-nine. Although the structure was otherwise strictly adhered to, I feel it is important to recognize that any precompositional determinations are purely theoretical, tools to making the piece you heard in your head, and may be abandoned at any time if the music demands.

If Not, Winter being a setting of Sappho, I chose a lyric soprano as soloist, accompanied by an unusual instrumental group emphasizing extreme highs and lows, with three of each family represented. From the winds I selected a piccolo, bass clarinet, and baritone sax, from the brass a horn, trumpet, and tuba, from the percussion only pitched instruments – vibraphone (doubling glockenspiel), marimba, and piano – and from the strings a violin, cello, and bass, all of which may be amplified in performance.