Written for ensemble mise-en for the 2016 Dartmouth New Music Festival, Spring 2016.
Orchestration: solo bass trombone*, amplified octet (flute, oboe, Clarinet in Bb, percussion**, violin, viola, cell, and double bass), and responsive electroacoustic environment
* prepared tinfoil
** (1 percussionist) bass drum, suspended cymbal, Chinese opera gong, whip, simantra, contact-miced extension spring, crotales, grand piano (internal manipulations only), Ping-Pong balls, amplified eggshells on styrofoam, Mark trees (bar chimes).
Duration: approx. 16 minutes
Program Notes for Coelacanth
The bass trombone, in the foreground in Coelacanth, snakes through a landscape populated with brittle noise, buzzing tin foil, homemade rubber-band instruments, and bouncing Ping-Pong balls. Exploring extreme juxtapositions of noise versus pitch, density versus sparsity, and synchrony versus asynchrony, the piece is pervaded by a feeling of tension and disquiet. Like an oscillating spring–mass system, Coelacanth constantly seems to be losing energy, in danger of grinding to a halt, only to receive another push just in time to continue on a bit further. Central to the aesthetic of the work is an eight-foot suspended walnut-wood plank. The sound of this instrument, referred to by Greek composer Iannis Xenakis as a “simantra” in reference to an instrument of Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox providence, is rich in noise and high harmonic partials. These pitches, untangled from recordings of the instrument with the help of software, form the basis for the harmonic language of Coelacanth. Equally important to the work is the timbre of another unusual instrument, the bullroarer. Consisting of an airfoil swung around the head to produce an eerie buzzing noise, examples of suspected bullroarers have been found in caves in France dating from the Palaeolithic Era. The timbre of this instrument is explored in Coelacanth through software algorithms that translate the unmistakable pulsing drone of the bullroarer into chords that slowly transform as they disperse throughout the ensemble. Like the work’s namesake, Coelacanth is bony and awkward, but among all the sharp teeth and superfluous fins, a fearful beauty seems imminent.