History by Moonlight (2002)
for violin, clarinet, and piano [15:30]
Gavin Cannizzaro’s short story “History by Moonlight” was written in the fall of 1998. Even on first reading, the story seemed to beg for musical treatment. I sketched out the piece’s opening sonorities–a “juggling” line in a wind instrument contrasted with a low “weeping” melody. It took three and a half years to gain a clearer conception of its direction, refine its details, and finish the piece.
What enchanted me most in this story was the direction and impact the author achieves with fairly sparse resources. From a limited number of recurring motifs and images, he fashions a dreamlike web of shifting and reappearing symbols, a set of aspectral variations of the same material viewed from many different angles.
The significance of numbers in History by Moonlight especially fascinated me. Three and Nine are the story’s dominant numbers: three main characters, nine biscuits, a rule of thirds, Jake juggling a queen and eight pawns… This numerical obsession suggested most of the dimensions of my piece: a trio, cast in nine sections, based on nine-note scales.
All of the pitch material in “History by Moonlight” is generated in some way from a nine-note nucleus, the following scale (actually only one possible permutation) in which each note is identified with a specific number:
The appearance of pitches is not serialized, but rather governed by a simple mathematical rule: every melodic line, chord, or (in some cases) elements of form must be contained within a series (of pitches or formal elements) that, when converted to a single digit, adds up to nine. For example, the opening phrase of melody in the bass register is built on the following six scale degrees: 1-2-3-9-7-5. The sum of these numbers is 27; two plus seven is nine. In this system, adding nine acts as an identity (that is to say, adding any number to nine yields that number) and thus the number nine is in a sense the system’s “magic number.” The ninth note of each scale thus serves as a central pitch around which the other notes can be symmetrically arranged.
Never before had I composed with such a rigid system of pitch selection. The decision to restrict my compositional palette made me all the more determined to stretch the constricted framework to its extremes.The fifth section of my piece, for instance, depicts a chess game between Jake and Flora. To select the pitches, I created a 9 by 9 matrix and simply played a game of chess with an added pawn and queen on each side. Each square was designated a certain pitch, and the transcribed moves of both sides found their way into the piece. The chess moves are heard as interjections from various instruments over a grid of eighty-one quarter-notes.
My ultimate goal in composing History by Moonlight, however, was to use an extremely inflexible and controlled musical language to convey the contour of an independent narrative. Letting the piece fall according to the numbers wasn’t a sufficient end in itself; there was also a storyline to mirror in music.
History by Moonlight is a story about three main characters: Jake, the daydreaming father; Flora, the overbearing matriarch; and Celine, the weepy and heartbreakingly childlike daughter. These characters are depicted throughout the piece. Rather than explicitly linked with particular instruments, they are represented by different musical elements; Celine is always linked with melody, Flora to rhythm, and Jake to texture (specifically, the directionless and circular ‘juggling’ motif that first appears in the clarinet at the opening). The interplay between these musical dimensions is explored–either one, two, or all three elements at a time–throughout the piece’s nine movements. as might be expected in any melodrama, the entire company performs the opening and closing scenes (movements I. and IX.), while the subtler shades of subsets are explored in the inner movements. The one exception is movement V. (the aforementioned chess game) which functions as a “play within a play”; Jake and Flora’s chess game is intercut with scenes of Celine listening to a record about another trio–a soft and naive music box melody in a higher register.
These roles are most explicit in the “SOLO” Movements (VI.-VIII.) where each character is depicted alone. Celine alone, represented by melody, is depicted in the sixth movement by a reverse fugue (mirroring Celine’s regression in age throughout the story) on subjects derived from six different permutations of the nine-note scale. What the listener perceives as a series of entrances is actually the stretto section; after some sequenced material, voices drop out one at a time. A swirling texture of instrumental effects fills Jake’s dreamlike solo movement (exactly nine measures long), while Flora’s stern command is evoked by superimposed layers of rhythm with NO melodic motion, where each pitch is struck nine times.
So what, ultimately, is the best approach for a first-time listener? First off, Read Gavin’s story first as a guidepost. It’s all in the music somewhere–not only the overall contour, but the details as well: a camera forgetting to click, Jake’s slump over the chessboard–even the sliding biscuits make an appearance. Then, take the opening measures as a starting point. Here, and only here, the three characters are delineated by the three instruments: Jake’s juggling in the clarinet, Celine’s weeping in the piano’s prolonged bass melody, and Flora’s snapshots in the violin’s interjections. After this short introduction, sit back and follow the characters through to the end; it will be obvious who among the three comes out on top…