There is a subtle and fragile dance that takes place between the composer and the work itself, and the creation of each new piece feels like an exotic journey, an exploration into uncharted territory. The initial musical material takes on a life of its own and begins to effect the rest of the piece, so that a strange sort of symbiotic relationship is achieved between the creator and the creation. Few pieces in my catalog illustrate this process as well as “Winter”.
The very first musical idea I had (after memorizing the poetry by Edward Esch) was just three notes, a simple trill, and as I played with this material I realized that it was reminiscent of Indian music I had heard while a student in college. The sparse, static nature of the poem lends itself perfectly to the classical Indian aesthetic, but I hesitated. A Christmas work with Indian sitar? About snow? For Southern California? My great friend David Norona persuaded me to trust my initial idea, and so without looking back I began composing.
I realized immediately, of course, that I knew nothing about classical Indian music, a musical tradition that easily predates western music and is every bit as complex. I found Paul Livingstone, a local sitar player and teacher, and began my crash course in Indian music.
In a nutshell, Indian music is based on two major elements: the raga and the tala. The raga dictates not only which notes can be played (there is generally one set of notes to be played for ascending melodies, and a different set for descending melodies), but the mood of the piece as well. Each raga carries with it a specific feeling and a number of traditional gestures; after listening to many different ragas I chose raga desh, a rainy season raga that had (to my ears) a beautiful mix of longing and melancholy. I chose tin tala, the most basic, popular tala, basically a circle of four measures of four beats each. All of this happens over a constant drone played by one or two tambours.
I then set out incorporating these elements into my music. Following the rules of raga desh, every time a line ascends it uses a natural seventh, and descending lines use a flatted seventh. The second degree of the scale is also heavily accented, and so most of my melodies either begin or end on the second degree. When the sopranos sing the line “pure and gentle” it is illustrated using the purest form of the raga, and words like “melting” and “weary” are illuminated with traditional Indian glissandi (slides) . The word “shimmers” is performed once by the choir (accompanied by trilling, ‘shimmering’ strings) but is echoed throughout the piece by the string orchestra. The tala is rhythmically faithful throughout the entire work, and the only time it strays is for one measure when the poem reads “a single snowflake awakens and watches the world”; I liked the idea of painting “awakens” with an extra beat, as if the very fabric of the universe were altered by this simple event.
Winter was commissioned by the Pacific Chorale, and is dedicated in deepest friendship to Mr. David Norona.
The snow is falling,
dreaming of water.
Gold, silver, iron, stone;
pure and gentle, silently melting,
the sun sings softly through the quiet ice.
A single snowflake awakens,
watches the world with weary eyes,