The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine

ENS.2004.1 + ENS.2005.2 + ENS.2005.1 | 17′ + 17′ + 27′ = 60′
I. 4 Alto Saxophones
II. Soprano Sax, Alto Sax, Tenor Sax, Baritone Sax, Marimba
III. 2 Clarinets in A, 2 Marimbas, 2 Violas


Cup and Saucer in the Path of a Mechanical Insect

The Acme Novelty Music Library

Sad Little Breathing Machine


I have always been fascinated by patterns, and in 2003 I began a series of pieces made entirely from interlocking eighth note patterns. Inspired by Sol LeWitt’s famous formulation “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” I wanted to make a musical analogue to the rigorously conceived, yet aesthetically bold and colorful wall paintings for which he is famous.

Thinking of my material as a vertical and horizontal network of relationships between independently conceived cells of pitch and rhythm superimposed upon one another, I began with small, mathematically predetermined patterns, exhaustively permuting and combining them to create total process pieces.

From 2003-2006 I wrote nine increasingly complex works in this style, to diminishing returns. Twenty years later, I feel three of them may still compel some attention, and have collected them in the cycle The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine, after Horst Bredekamp’s marvelous study of Renaissance kunstkammern and the birth of the museum, a title which also suggests the machine in the garden these works exemplify.

The cycle begins with Cup and Saucer in the Path of a Mechanical Insect, originally for any four instruments, here played by a quartet of alto saxophones, as first recorded by Ken Thomson and Peter Hess. Taking its wonderfully awkward title from the drawing by Edward Gorey that inspired this jerky, spindly, yet oddly relentless music, the work consists of interlocking patterns of every possible combination of eighth notes in a 4/4 measure laid over a bed of constantly changing open fifths.

Next, the saxophone quartet takes up the usual soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone horns, and are joined by a marimba in The Acme Novelty Music Library, a tribute to the wistful yet hard-edged work of cartoonist Chris Ware. This time around, the material consists of three two-part lines which move at different rates in relation to one another, each line consisting of a series of boxes in which the patterns repeat relentlessly. These boxes interlock in duets, and all three duets run simultaneously, creating a riotous onrush of constantly changing colorful musical blocks.

The cycle concludes with Sad Little Breathing Machine, about equal in length to the preceding works combined. Beginning with syncopated rhythms and diatonic open fifths, true to its name the work gradually becomes darker and more modal. As all twelve tones enter, the note values slowly lengthen, and the piece takes slower, deeper breaths until it finds its unsettled, dissonant center. Eventually the cadence picks up again, brighter and more brittle than before, harmonies climbing above the treble clef and beyond.

The crepuscular nature of the resulting music suggested to me an autumnal sound, so two of the saxophones change to clarinets, the marimba is joined by another, and two violas complete the instrumental reflection. 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.