Symphony for Ammi Phillips

ENS.2009.7 | 14′
4 Piccolos, 4 Violins


Movs. 1 & 2

Movs. 3-5

Not really a symphony. It was supposed to be but now it’s not, unless you are Stravinsky, who called all sorts of things symphonies that were not really symphonies. I am not Stravinsky, but that was the title even before I began composing, so there you go.

Anyway, for a while I had wanted to write a piece with groups of high instruments—piccolos, oboes, trumpets, violins—but it was not until I visited the late, lamented American Folk Art Museum to do some research on Henry Darger for my composition In the Realms of the Unreal that I found my inspiration. At the museum was an exhibit pairing Mark Rothko with the mid-nineteenth century peripatetic portraitist Ammi Phillips, the logic behind the exhibition being that both were magicians of light and color. It was no idle boast; I wasn’t prepared to see Rothko blown away by this painter previously unknown to me.

Phillips was an absolute master, his brilliant paintings practically exploding off the wall straight into your retinas. His broad swaths of pigment seem to prefigure Matisse, and those strange but convincing faces do not so much represent the sitters as suggest their presence. One extraordinary painting features a young boy under a walnut tree, the scene set at night and positively glowing with an inner luminescence. Unfortunately, these works cannot really be appreciated in reproduction; like Van Gogh, they must be experienced firsthand to reveal their power.

On my way home I knew I was going to make a composition about Phillips’s work, and I knew it would be for piccolos and violins, whose bright timbres would hopefully glow as brightly as the paintings. Initially I intended the movements to follow classical symphonic form, but the patterned musical material I had in mind suggested the symmetrical variation form with which I had been working for most of the previous year. At the time immersed in choral music of the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries, I chose four of each instrument to follow a series of tetrachordal harmonies gradually unfolding over the course of the work while moving (mostly) according to strict Palestrinian rules of counterpoint.

Symphony for Ammi Phillips is divided into five continous movements: the first and fifth are energetic and feature short, fast figures, while the central third movement is slow. The inner second and fourth movements explore harmonies inspired by spectral harmonies and the sound of organs, while over the course of the work glissandos and saturated sounds such as trills and tremolos come to dominate the textures.