Sad Little Breathing Machine

ENS.2005.1 | 26′
2 Clarinets, 2 Marimbas, 2 Violas


Sad Little Breathing Machine

Performed by Bill Kalinkos (clarinets), Alex Lipowski (marimbas), and Beth Meyers (violas)

Sad Little Breathing Machine is one of my few still-acknowledged works from an early series composed in a total-process mode. At the time it was written, when I was twenty-five, the art of Sol LeWitt—“ideas are the machine that makes the art”—was very influential on me. In these pieces I first decided generally what I wanted the piece to sound like and then separately composed rhythmic patterns and harmonies before combining them by permutational means, using algorithms to place the material in a mosaic structure in which the small was mirrored in the large and vice versa.

Sad Little Breathing Machine begins with diatonic open fifths, gradually becoming more modal until total chromaticism enters the picture. As it becomes darker, the rhythms gradually lengthen, so that at its halfway point the piece finds a dissonant, still center. Eventually the rhythms pick up, but brighter and more brittle than before; over the course of the work the harmonies climb from a deep abyss to high cliff tops.

Although at first conceived as no more than a network of relationships between pitch and rhythm like my other works of the period, because of what I heard as the crepuscular nature of the resulting music I scored the piece for the autumnal combination of two clarinets, two marimbas, and two violas. The title of Matthea Harvey’s lovely second book of poetry seemed to reflect what I was trying to achieve in this piece, so I stole it: Sad Little Breathing Machine.