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Roger Reynolds


A true composition is not only a remark or stance or display, but a dimensional experience that either leads the listener along a path or proposes a landscape for exploration. —Roger Reynolds 

It is not so easy to accept that Roger Reynolds will reach the age of eighty this coming July. True, the weight of achievement is there: an output going back to the beginning of the 1960s and including dozens of major works. But, as the most recent piece on tonight’s program will show, this is someone who remains a young explorer. He has returned repeatedly to standard genres, especially the string quartet, with Irvine Arditti to prompt him. But he has also gone on looking for new ways in which music can energize space, interlock with electronics, and spill across into drama – or do all of these at once, as most recently in his george WASHINGTON, introduced by the National Symphony Orchestra last fall. Many of his most striking pieces use these elements of space, electronics, and drama, from Traces for solo piano with flute, cello, and live modulation (1968) to Sanctuary for four percussion players (2003-7) and beyond.

Reynolds spent much of the 1960s in Europe and Japan, returning to the United States in 1969 to take up a professorship at UCSD, which he established as one of the foremost schools for composers and for performers of new music. He founded one of the first computer-music facilities there in 1971, brought many lively colleagues to join him, and remains on the faculty. Among his recordings, two releases on the Mode label are outstanding: a double album of his complete piano works, including Yuji Takahishi in Traces; and a DVD of Sanctuary, as performed by Steven Schick and red fish blue fish. 

Kokoro (1992)

To conclude his string quartet Visions (1991), the second of four collaborations with the Arditti Quartet, Reynolds composed a substantial solo for the group’s leader, and from this came the idea of a big solo piece that would draw on the same materials and be intended for the same musician. For the title, Reynolds chose a Japanese word as defined by Daisetz T. Suzuki: “‘Kokoro’ is a very comprehensive term. It first of all means the physical ‘heart,’ and then the true ‘heart’ (connotative and emotional), ‘mind (intellectual), ‘soul’ (in the sense of an animating principle), and ‘spirit’ (metaphysical).”

This provided the cue for an eighteen-minute sequence of transformations of the origi- nal music, which is closest to the surface in the eighth section and is elsewhere turned in the direction of the spirit (second section), the physical heart (fourth section), the true heart (sixth section), the soul (tenth section), and the mind (twelfth section). Each section has its own title, as follows: 

    1. Staged Convergence. The convergence is between quick notes and sustained ones (or rests), through a succession of eight short subsections. As if absorbing energy from the stilled time, the quick flurries become faster, until the stationary moments have disappeared.
    2. Unearthly. The feel, Reynolds suggests, is “Apollonian – elevated, pure, a dispas- sionate lyricism.”
    3. Intricate Alternation. Not only notes are alternated here but also, again, short du- rations and long ones, of which the latter “suggest the stopping of the heart,” with energy maintained through the pause.
    4. Excitation, Recovery, Focus. The three-part process happens five times, the first four times focussing on a diminuendo to pppp, the last time ending with a three- quarter-tone slide at a steady ff.
    5. Tenuous, Trembling. “Various tranquil states of being....”
    6. With Radiant Continuity. This relatively short element is a consummation of what was interrupted in the third section.
    7. A Traversal of Sighs.
    8. Ghostly, Evanescent, Elastic. Muted and very soft throughout, this section never- theless keeps changing in character.
    9. Luminous Murmurs. These are made of triple-stop tremolos and sustained swells.
    10. Alternative Paths. Repeating notes are displaced by notes in extreme heights.
    11. Augmented Throbbing. “The demonic unwillingness to subside here demands a feverish and invariant tremolo.”
    12. Precisely, Implacably. This last segment proceeds at the work’s principal, fast tempo almost to the end. 

Aspiration (2004-05)

A little longer than either of the other works on this program, Aspiration has aspects of both. It is again a showpiece designed for Irvine Arditti, and even more challenging. It also has a sectional form in which two participants are involved: the violin and an ensemble of fourteen players. The winds and strings of this ensemble are divided into two groups, of five upper instruments (flute, clarinet, trumpet, two violins) and seven lower (bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trombone, viola, cello, double bass), which pursue separate but connected courses. Each group has its own harmonic repertory, of five-note and seven-note chords respectively, but in both the general movement is very slowly downward, whereas the solo violin moves in the opposite direction. Piano and percussion may be independent of these groups, or may join with one or both.

There are six ensemble movements, linked by five solo cadenzas. The first movement, little more than a minute long, is introductory, and the soloist enters only as it ends, with the first cadenza. A sequence of long phrases is proposed, but tempo, rhythmic articulation, and dynamics are all left largely to the soloist. Greeted by swelling chords, the violin is then drawn into the second movement, a much fuller andante that pulls back to a climax and unleashes the rapid-fire second cadenza. Then comes a fast movement, from which springs the virtuoso third cadenza. Deservedly resting through most of the energetic fourth movement, the violin has a relatively short cadenza leading into the fifth movement, where again it is silent, until called on by piano and percussion to reply with its fifth cadenza. The finale, for everyone, is short and slow. Aspirations – to rise, to settle, to join, to include – have been achieved. 

Positings (2012)

Commissioned for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Southwest Chamber Music, this piece is for five standard instruments – flute (doubling piccolo), horn, violin, cello, and piano (doubling percussion) – plus a sixth musician at a computer, manipulating and replaying recorded samples.

Five “posits,” short and distinct miniatures for the quintet, are interleaved with somewhat longer computer “responses,” in which recordings of the instrumental music are transformed and remixed to elaborate the original potential. There is thus a verse-response form, but with the difference that, after the first pair, the responses follow a dif- ferent order, as follows: P1 – R1 – P2 –R3 – P3 – R5 – P4 – R2 – P5 – R4. Thus the third response comes immediately before the relevant posit, others at a greater remove, so that memory is called into play. In addition, the responses all contain “enhancements” from the live musicians, complicating a little the dialogue of quintet and computer. The last enhancement, much the longest, extends beyond the last response and brings the worlds of instruments and computer together.