Notes on Tonalization (for the afterlife) mixed instrumental sextet, 2010

This new work for instrumental sextet is the fourth major work I have composed specifically for my ensemble and is the first new such piece since 2004. While it possesses the coherence of a complete work, Tonalization (for the afterlife) is also a mosaic of many smaller pieces, each of which I imagine developing into larger pieces. More so than in any of the previous ensemble works, I think of this work as a collection, a compendium of musical ideas if you will, and thus I don’t feel that it is entirely fixed or finished. In that spirit I have continued to create alternate versions and arrangements, exploring the possibilities of form, timbre and rhythm inherent in the material.

As an extension of the mosaic idea, while composing the work I was preoccupied with an idea of continual transformation, or continuous invention. My previous ensemble pieces generally have a fairly traditional formal structure, not unlike a sonata or a concerto, i.e., an introduction followed by a development section, a recapitulation and a finale. In this new work I tried to go beyond that formula and stretch out into broader musical spaces. I think I succeeded to a small degree, and while my piece still relies somewhat on traditional formal development and repetition of themes, I hope you will also be able to hear the impulse towards continual variation.

My other preoccupation was the idea of “tone.” By tone I mean something more than timbre (the particular character or quality of a musical sound or voice) and pitch (the degree of highness or lowness of a tone), although these properties obviously play an important role too. For me, tone also implies an inner voice, a resonance of the spirit, and it is the search for this special tone – both in the music and in the self - that is at the core of my work. Thus, Tonalization (for the afterlife) is also an exploration of different ways to experience tone. We hear single tones played in small groups of instruments, by one player and sometimes by all of us. At times we sustain only one note; other times we hear dyads and triads of tones. Sometimes tone is expressed as interlocking poly-rhythms. In each case what you hear is, well, music! But it is a music with a more specific agenda: the search for “tone.”

Another way of thinking about tone is found in the title. The word “tonalization” comes from Shinichi Suzuki, the founder of the Suzuki Method of musical education, who coined the term to describe a system of training exercises he developed for the cultivation of beautiful tone. Throughout the Suzuki Method training, which I have learned through my daughter’s Suzuki violin lessons, one consistently encounters these tonalizations as “Exercises for Natural Tone,” which offer different ways to approach the production of tone, always emphasizing notes of a long duration. I find this concept of the “tonalization” – a practice aimed at the cultivation of beautiful tone – to be an apt description for a lot of what happens in my piece.

And what of the music itself? The particular mix of instruments is perhaps the most interesting feature, but that pretty much speaks for itself. Digging a little further though, It would be difficult to talk about the music without mentioning minimalism. Superficially, this music certainly sounds like classical minimalism, with its pulsing synchronicity, harmonic consonance, and rhythmic exhilaration. But is it in fact Minimalism? It’s a question that haunts me at times, as this style, after all, is over 40 years old, and aren’t we always supposed to be pioneering something new? I ultimately concluded that there is still a lot to like about the minimalist template. Plus, I am completely steeped in the stuff – there is scarcely a minimalist piece that I haven’t heard. Why fight it?

I have to concede that this work is not revolutionary. And why should it be? One of my teachers, the late Mel Powell, once said to me during a private lesson, “Don’t worry about being original. If you’re original, you’re original!” Meeting Steve Reich after a talk he gave in Berkeley during the 90s, he was bemoaning the long shelf life of minimalism and the absence of a new significant style or movement and said to me, “You can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat.” Also sometime in the late 90s I heard John Adams say during a radio interview something to the effect that the arrival of minimalism was analogous to the discovery of some great new grassy meadow that we will continue to graze upon for decades to come. I take each of these perspectives to heart as I consider the relative obsolescence of my music.

Which brings us to “the afterlife.” When this idea of a title first came to me (and frankly I don’t remember quite how it did), I hesitated. After all, what do I know about the afterlife? I am not a particularly spiritual person, at least not formally, but I do have a strong sense of the so-called “oceanic feeling,” a feeling that could easily lead one to ponder an afterlife. But it is just a title, and I don’t expect it to be taken literally. However, my thoughts on this prospective title took a significant, and very sad, turn while I was putting the finishing touches on the piece. Suzanne Fiol’s sudden and tragic death last October affected me deeply, as it has so many of us who came to know and appreciate her through our involvement with the Issue Project Room. It is to her memory, her “afterlife,” that this piece is dedicated. She supported this ensemble, inviting us to perform at both of the previous Issue spaces, and it is especially meaningful for me that we offer the first performance of this new work here at her latest, and her last, Issue Project Room space. Thinking of you Suzanne♡

Published March 17, 2010 for the World Premiere performance at Issue Project Room, Brooklyn, NY