ENS.2008.13 | 22′
Poem by A.R. Ammons
Tenor & Oboe/Cor Anglais, Clarinet, Clarinet/Bass Clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, Cornet, Guitar, String Quartet
Part I: Songs 1-4
Part II: Songs 5-10
Part III: Songs 11-13
Part IV: Song 14
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 also suggests the way this song cycle works, with fourteen songs and an instrumental coda representing all fifteen possible permutations of the cycle’s four basic musical ideas. The first part consists of four songs, each introducing one idea, their characteristic melodic and harmonic profiles made clearly audible so it’s easier to hear them combine later on. In the second part, six songs pair all four ideas with one another, the third part combines three ideas simultaneously, and in the fourth part all four ideas are finally heard together in the coda without the distraction of a vocal line.
These 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. Although the harmonies sometimes move at different rates or the melodies themselves create harmonies, all basic harmonic relationships stay constant, preserving the cycle’s unity and allowing its structure to remain continually 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 Ammons’s lovely poem, an earthy mix of leaves, birds, nests, bones, and shrubs. Accordingly, there are no especially high or low instruments, and the ensemble is dominated by a preponderance of woody, stringy textures, with a tempering of warm brass.
The solo tenor’s freely composed vocal melodies provide necessary counterpoint to the relatively static, increasingly familiar basic musical ideas as they combine and recombine for the twenty minutes or so it takes to travel from a single violin playing the first idea to the entire ensemble playing all four at once in an instrumental coda inspired by Schumann’s masterpiece Dichterliebe.