Sad Little Breathing Machine

ENS.051 | Completed 6.5.05 | 25’
2 A Clarinets, 2 Marimbas, 2 Violas

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Sad Little Breathing Machine

First there was Music for Dancing, a nearly two-hour-long instrumental cycle of six movements for eight instruments. Then there was revision, leaving about an hour’s worth of music. Now there is Sad Little Breathing Machine. This is one of the few remaining compositions in the total-process mode I thought at the time would be my primary means of musical expression. (Such naivete…) I was hearing a sparkling interplay of patterns, now loud and pounding, now gentle and delicate, interlocking and coming apart like the art of Sol LeWitt in particular, whose “ideas are the machine that makes the art” was very influential on me. To make such a music, I decided what I generally wanted the piece to sound like and then separately determined rhythmic patterns and block harmonies by permutational means, attempting to algorithmically arrange them in an overarching mosaic structure in which the small was mirrored in the large and vice versa. The problem: many of these pieces were too long and unremitting, and ultimately underwhelming. However, Sad Little Breathing Machine benefits from my having first conceived the piece as a musical entity before trying to figure out the structural aspects. The basic idea was this: A block of interacting rhythmic patterns would delineate a certain harmony, then shift to the next block without dovetailing. But musically what I wanted was more gradual. The piece begins with diatonic open fifths and gets more modal until chromaticism enters the picture, turning the piece darker in tone. As it becomes darker, the rhythms gradually lengthen, so that halfway through the piece finds its dissonant, still center. Eventually the rhythms pick up, but brighter and more brittle than before; over the course of the entire piece the harmonies climb from their deepest pitch to the highest at the very end. Throughout, the interplay of rhythmic values continually varies, while the harmonies are unified by a predominance of fifths. In fact, the harmonies are made entirely of stacked fifths, but with each tone moved to a different place so the chords become complex. Although at first conceived as a network of relationships between pitch and rhythm like my other works of the period, because of the wide (three-octave) range of each part and the crepuscular nature of the music I decided to make a definitive orchestration for two clarinets, two marimba, and two violas. Since I wanted the piece to be elegiac, autumnal, and the title of the incredible second book of poetry by the incredible Matthea Harvey suggests exactly what the piece sounds like to me, I stole it: Sad Little Breathing Machine.