Suite-Fantasy for Flute and Bassoon (2007) 20 mins
Dedicated to Lisa Tharp and John Friedeman
Perhaps the most honest thing I can say about this piece is that, returning to examine it after a number of months working on numerous other pieces and projects, it surprises and thrills me! Truly this was a piece conceived by my subconscious in a burst of white-heat creativity. I can recall some of the process: assuring my wife that I would soon be in bed once I’d satisfactorily ‘cleaned up’ a phrase or section I was worrying away at and, seemingly in the next instant, seeing the surprise on her face as she emerged the next morning to see me still hunched over my project. I recall the legend that Beethoven didn’t bathe while working on the Ninth Symphony; well, I scarcely slept while working on this.
Now, this is, in a way, a little disingenuous as the Suite-Fantasy was a commissioned work, and not one that I engineered in order to write something i had long been thinking of: an unexpected challenge that had come out of the blue, and generally white-heat inspiration only overwhelms you on self-started projects. But, unlike many commissioned jobs I had no need to sit down and methodically work my way through the concept: I knew immediately what I wanted to do, and my subconscious kicked in with the solution as to how it would actually
John and Lisa were both members of the orchestra that gave the first performance of my Second Symphony in Scottsdale, Arizona, in January of this year: a process that was fraught with tension due to the nature of my orchestral writing which was, shall we euphemistically describe as, challenging. The commission actually came about between the final rehearsal and the performance. John came off the stage and informed me that I would have some tremendously focussed musicians on the stage that afternoon. I apologised. He said that this was a good thing.
As we all chatted he returned to me and asked me if challenged to compose a piece for Flute and Bassoon – just these instruments: no piano, no strings – how I would go about it. I said that it would need to be contrapuntal: the movement of the voices implying the fuller harmonies that are impossible with just two voices. He was content, and asked me how much I would charge for such a piece. Typically of me, I chose to be paid in sound rather than money! Indeed, I had finished the piece before I even thought about the commissioning fee.
I simply wanted to hear some pieces I had previously composed for Flute and Piano, and Bassoon and Piano, that would be payment enough!
As soon as I thought about the piece I knew I wanted it to be substantial. There was a challenge in writing a large-scale piece for such restricted resources. I knew, as well, that I wanted to steer clear of anything suggesting sonata-form – which I had been exploring obsessively for the previous few years – and investigate a new way of achieving a satisfying, substantial work.
I fell upon the idea of an arch-like structure, paired movements on either side of a central intermezzo. The three ideas I fell upon were of evolution, stasis and something cantabile in the form of an aria. The evolutionary movements would take an idea and expand it improvisatorily, without recourse to traditional recapitulation and the express desire that they would end up somewhere radically different from where they had begun. The static ideas would explore minimalist techniques, only – having had the chance to sit next to John over dinner and been delighted by his dry wit – I thought it would be ironic for the first ‘stasis’ to be the most adventurously wide-ranging movement tonally of the whole work! The other static movement involves a type of building brick approach I have used often before. Over an ostinato bass there are a number of different phrases (bricks) that can be put together in different ways and over different portions of the bass to create variety and interest. The arias are pure outpourings of melody, the second one coupled with a rather dramatic recitative.
Technically there were three things that were of paramount importance to me: firstly, I was very conscious of the musicians’ need to breathe and built opportunities for them to do so into the music, usually staggered so that one part is active while the other recovers, and vice versa; secondly, I didn’t want to fall into the trap of giving the bulk of the material to the Flute while the Bassoon simply oom-pahs an accompaniment, and the primary material constantly swaps between the two performers and; finally, I was aware that each instrument had different tonal qualities in their different ranges – high, medium and low – and that by exploring these ranges I could also suggest a richness difficult to achieve with only two instruments.
As for the title: the piece is really a Fantasy Suite, but the reordering of the words as Suite-Fantasy has a suggestiveness and (I hope) wit that perfectly matches the impression these two remarkable people made upon me.
First Performance at ASU Kerr Cultural Center, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA by Arpeggio (Lisa Tharp and John Friedeman) on 30 January 2008