Symphony for Low Orchestra

ENS.2020.3 | 21′


Part I: Andante con moto – Allegro ma non troppo

Part II: Largo – Finale. Doppio movimento

Symphony for Low Orchestra

Movie soundtracks are often criticized for their appropriation of tropes and styles derived from the classical canon, as if this is not something that has happened continuously with little comment or implied derogation throughout the repertoire itself. Such a blinkered perspective on soundtrack music both overlooks and diminishes the many stylistic innovations originated by major figures as disparate as Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, Michael Nyman, and Hans Zimmer. In my recent work generally, and this piece in particular, I have attempted to move in precisely the opposite direction, repurposing and reappraising musical ideas, approaches, materials, and textures common in the soundtrack world by setting them into various abstract narratives and structural models normative within the European-American classical tradition.

In order to emphasize the gorgeous dark sound worlds favored by composers like Herrmann and Zimmer, for this piece I envisioned an unusual, expanded orchestra comprised entirely of bass instruments. The low orchestra of the title is predominated by a huge, burnished brass section, accompanied by deep woody winds and enlarged groups of low strings. Uncommon instruments including contrabass clarinets, euphoniums, and a cimbasso (a kind of contrabass trombone) further augment and enrich the symphony’s resonant inky textures.

Excepting the instrumentation, Symphony for Low Orchestra is very nearly a traditional symphony, developing clearly defined material across an introduction, scherzo, slow movement, and finale. An overarching harmonic architecture binds the piece together, and structural cycles of melodic, rhythmic, and textural material rotate within each movement as well as within the piece as a whole, producing a comprehensive musical narrative.

This symphony’s four movements are grouped into two parts, each featuring two movements that play attacca. Melodies are shared and develop within each part, and throughout I utilize a heterophonic method I call fractal polyphony, in which melodies are set against themselves as they move at different speeds, an approach akin to viewing the same object from different angles, at different distances.

Tolling chords solemnly introduce Part I of Symphony for Low Orchestra, launching a surging Andante con moto in which slowly building and receding spans of rushing strings and blazing brass set the tone for the work as a whole. From a return of the opening chords emerges a pulsing Allegro ma non troppo. As interlocking ostinatos cut syncopated swaths across the music’s regular melodic and harmonic grid, long melodies reach and subside atop an unsettled terrain of restless glissandi before merging in best symphonic style with themes from the first movement in a coruscating recapitulation.

Having been drawn to fast music for most of my life, the Largo that begins Part II is the slowest, most elongated stretch of music I have yet written. Yearning unison melodies ascend from the depths, gradually unfurling into graceful fractal polyphony. These melodies proliferate and accumulate until, when they reach their climax, the tempo doubles in speed and the Symphony for Low Orchestra blossoms into its majestic Finale.