3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo)
3 clarinets in Bb (2nd doubling Eb clarinet)
3 horns in F
3 trumpets in C
During the week between Christmas and New Year's of 1993 I lived in an adobe in Taos, New Mexico, escaping Cleveland's oncoming winter and celebrating the holidays with two friends. I brought with me a few pages of a score that I had begun with the hope of making this a creatively productive vacation. With a violinist and a cellist each practicing twenty feet behind me, I sat at a large wooden dining table looking out of a window at the barren New Mexico scenery.
Almost immediately this piece took on a life of its own. Never have so many notes sprung from my pen (a fountain pen with red ink) so quickly. By the time I returned to Cleveland, at midnight on the last day of the year, the bulk of Desolation Angels was completed.
The form of the piece is dictated by the landscape. The listener is presented with a 360 degree panorama of a stark landscape. Shapes appear and disappear mysteriously, taking the listener full circle, finally returning to the place of the first glance. There is violence, oppressiveness, serenity and an occasional glimpse of beauty. There is a pervasive feeling of desolation throughout. These are all observations of the natural environment, however. The only human activity is that of observer.
The first sound heard is a major third interval played softly by the muted violins. Short melodies weave in and out as the sound of the wind is created by the brass players blowing, but not buzzing, through their instruments. The music changes colors frequently, as the horizon is scanned.
Some objects appear faintly in our peripheral before coming into focus, while other objects catch us completely off guard. Abrupt bursts of sounds reflect the sudden appearance of immense objects on the landscape.
The last one third of the composition is comprised of a lengthy crescendo. Beginning with a quiet repeated-note figure sounding almost like an afterthought, the intensity slowly increases. By the time the climax is reached the entire orchestra is screaming the repeated figure.
Just as our viewing the landscape goes full circle, so does the music. The major third from the beginning returns, once again in the muted strings. A few of the themes heard earlier drift in and out, reflecting on what we have seen. The music ends with a final diminuendo by the violins.
In his book The Craft of Musical Composition, Paul Hindemith writes, “Music, as long as it exists, will always take its departure from the major triad and always to it. The musician cannot escape it any more than the painter his primary colors, or the architect his three dimensions.” Hindemith’s reasoning is simple: the triad is outlined in the six lowest notes of the overtone series. The major triad is, “to the trained and the naive listener alike, one of the most impressive phenomena of nature, simple and elemental as rain, snow and wind.”
Almost all of Desolation Angels is constructed from major triads. Often two or three triads are heard simultaneously, frequently in harmonic opposition to one another. Series of triads move against one another in contrary motion. The wind instruments are all grouped in threes, and the triads are generally given to a single family of instruments - the three flutes may play one triad while the oboes have another and perhaps the clarinets have yet another.
The title of this work is borrowed from a novel by Jack Kerouac. In 1992 I wrote a trio for trombone, electric bass and timpani that followed the story of another Kerouac novel, The Dharma Bums. One of the chapters describes the author's summer as a fire lookout atop a peak in northern Washington. In his book Desolation Angels, Kerouac explores this summer of solitude more fully. Though this composition does not derive its program from the novel, Kerouac's vivid descriptions of the vista from his perch were fresh on my mind as I sat in my adobe composing
Desolation Angels was premiered on 15 February 1995 by my friend, gig partner and poker buddy, Carl Topilow and the Cleveland Institute of Music Orchestra.
Listen to this complete composition in the