Through the Looking Glass

Duration: ca. 20′

Instrumentation: 1(=picc, a.f.).1(=corA).1(=E-flat clarinet, Bcl).1(=cbn) – 0.1.0.0 – perc (1 player: drum kit, marimba, tam-tam, wood block, suspended cymbal, tambourine, ratchet, 4 tom-toms) – 1.0.1.1.1

Score: View score

Performance Note: Through the Looking Glass is a set of five movements for large chamber ensemble written in the summer of 2014. It’s mostly, though not entirely, bleak in outlook and not a little pessimistic – a reflection, perhaps, of a year of grim news forecasts. The fact that none of the violence, suffering, political dysfunction and instability unfolding around the world is in any way new is, of course, depressing, but it’s also, in its own, twisted way, somewhat comforting: the biblical observation that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9b) made true again and again.

So, Through the Looking Glass often looks back. The first movement, “Threnody,” appropriates the title of the ancient Greek lament, with wailing oboe and clarinet answered by an inexpressive string chorale and an enigmatic trumpet/percussion figure. The fourth movement, “A time there was…?,” presents a mythologized soundscape of an “easier, happier” time: the strains of an imagined hymn alternating with the gentle syncopations of a 1920s-era dance hall tune. A kind of corrupted simplicity returns in the finale, “Serenity Now,” in which an insistently rhythmic melody is broken up by contrasting episodes that recall yet more musical forms from past times only to be finally silenced by a return of “Threnody’s” caterwauling.

The second and third movements, too, look back, but here the rearward view is more internal and personal. In the former, bright, pulsing figures suddenly give way to violently accented gestures and the music unravels to end in a place very different from where it began. At the heart of Through the Looking Glass is the third movement, “Tombeau.” The title refers to Ravel’s marvelous memorial, Le tombeau de Couperin, but never quotes it. Instead, recurring string chords form a backdrop to a series of “memorials” played, respectively, by alto flute, English horn, and trumpet. A more animated central section begins to move things forward but collapses under its own weight. The chords and fragments of the “memorials” return and the movement ends with a disconsolate figure of lamentation.

Not only were the news reports particularly gloomy in the summer of 2014, but, over those same months, I found myself working through a number of frustrating professional and creative struggles. Through the Looking Glass thus became a very personal means for resolving these issues and purging, to paraphrase Christopher Rouse, some dark emotions.