Still Morning

ENS.078 | 3.29.07-4.2.07 | 7’
Soprano or Tenor, Bb Clarinet, Horn, Viola
or Alto or Bass, Bb Clarinet, English Horn, Violin

Midi Rendition of I. In Winter
Midi Rendition of II. In Spring
Midi Rendition of III. In Summer and Autumn

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Still Morning
Poems by Yvor Winters, “The Magpie’s Shadow”

  1. In Winter
  2. In Spring
  3. In Summer and Autumn

Still Morning represents a breakthrough in my work whose deliberate brevity belies its importance. It was in this piece I discovered a way to fuse my earlier interest in cellular composition with the freer approach I ‘d been taking in the vocal compositions which had come to dominate my output. At the time I was listening to a lot of Webern, whose music I love but whose harmonic and melodic approach is foreign to my own sensibilities. As a lover of miniatures I wondered, can there be a tiny minimalism? Can Webern and Philip Glass be made to coexist?

In Wideawake, then my most recently completed work, I had composed a cycle of very short songs, each consisting basically of a vocal line over a single repeating unison instrumental cell. Suddenly I realized that given a group of very short texts—haiku, for instance, or a poem with several small sections—each individual text could be set to a brief vocal melody over a repeating musical phrase, changing each time I came to a new poem. In this way the sequence of settings would be musically continuous yet consisting essentially of a series of single gestures.

I knew that if I were to attempt something like this I would need to find just the right text, and immediately had one in mind. In his brief tenure as an imagist poet before turning to rhyming, metered verse, Yvor Winters wrote a shockingly brief book, The Magpie’s Shadow, comprised entirely of wonderfully evocative six-syllable poems. These were arranged into three parts following the seasons (with summer and autumn elided), allowing for a nicely proportioned three-movement work. Additionally, the syllabic constraint resulted in settings roughly equal in size, allowing for a structural continuity of musical cells similar in length and affect.

After composing vocal melodies and a single line of repeating cells unified by the predominance of certain intervals and general similarity of shape, I thought for a while about what instrumentation I wanted to use. To emphasize the unison I wanted more than one instrument, and I wanted them to play in unison to create a kind of meta-instrument. At first I chose the obscure and rough combination of bass oboe, electric organ, and viola, but cooler heads prevailed and I settled on the more autumnal clarinet, horn and viola (there is another version for lower voices with english horn, clarinet and violin).

In the first movement the instruments play entirely in unison; in the second they play in unison but alternatively; finally the third is more orchestrated and elaborate. Nevertheless, the accompaniment is always in melodic and rhythmic unison.