E Pluribus (Full Program Notes)

This piece is about the individual and the collective, and is inspired by democracy. There are two main characters—the ocean of sound, represented most prominently by the strings—especially at the beginning and end, and a tonal chord progression that emerges gradually from the dense cluster at the beginning of the piece. The sublimation of the tonal progression into the cluster and the cluster’s interaction with the tonal progression propel the piece, delineate structure, and act as a type of embodiment for the societal shifts and interactions experienced in a democracy.

The tonal chord progression is a quotation and adaptation of the strings part from Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question. I turn to Ives and this specific piece for three main reasons. First, I had the United States of America in mind while preparing to write this piece and Ives is arguably the founding father of America’s independent compositional voice. Second, The Unanswered Question is similarly interested in sociological interactions; my personification and explorations throughout draw inspiration from this. Last, this piece is also a question; it’s a question about our great American experiment.

Listen for Iannis Xenakis—particularly Metastasis and Pithoprakta—in the divisi string writing. Xenakis also drew from the intersection of sociology and abstract representations of sound and I have learned from him and his music and writings as I worked on this piece. John Luther Adams’s textural works like Dark Waves, Become River, and the recent Pulitzer-Prize winning Become Ocean also gave me ideas to work with and against. While the swells of diatonic and chromatic sound owe a debt of influence to Adams, I’ve consciously implemented long tones and avoided arpeggios/pulse. I want the lines that emerge from the dense clusters to feel like individuals and the clusters to feel more like groups of individuals than a homogenous mass.

Within the piece there is a cycling of the tonal chord progression, whose repeats roughly determine various sections and local points of arrival. The repetition of this chord progression also affects the harmonies of the large cluster of notes, shifting it from chromatic to various diatonic shades. The cluster at first obscures the tonal progression but later becomes aligned with it to varying degrees throughout the work. This alignment builds toward a climax where all instruments finally have representatives playing the melody simultaneously. Not only is the climax an alignment of instruments, it is a break from the cyclic G major chord progression; the G melts away to chromaticism and then silence, leaving a quartet—made up of a woodwind, brass, and two string players—holding a C major chord. The piece could—and maybe it should—end here. But it doesn’t. The chord thickens as string join in and then it splinters with glissandi pulling apart the stasis and returning to a where the piece began. Democracy moves in cycles and seldom sits on a major triad very long.

Curtis Smith