If Not, Winter

ENS.2007.12 | 16′
Poems by Sappho, trans. Anne Carson
Soprano & Piccolo, Bass Clarinet, Baritone Saxophone, Horn, Trumpet, Tuba, 2 Percussion, Piano, Violin, Cello, Bass


If Not, Winter

If Not, Winter first suggested itself to me from a purely technical standpoint. As there are only twelve scale degrees and two basic kinds of triads, major and minor, I set myself the task of composing a piece which exhausted the two-part permutational possibilities of these triads 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 certain length as calculated in eighth notes.

This structure being set, I sought a series of short texts to place above this mosaic structure. It seemed obvious I should use some kind of fragments, so I looked to the past. What remains of classical poetry has always held a 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 timelessly 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 complete surviving poetry, If Not, Winter, published in two colors with a page layout that dramatized the broken remains she worked from. From these scraps I selected ninety-two to set, moving through my precalcuated 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; I ended up, appropriately, with 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 hear 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.