Cadences was inspired by Richard Powers’ beautiful 2014 novel Orfeo. The story centers on a contemporary composer as its protagonist and traces his career from its roots in American experimental music in the 1950s and 60s to the present day, when he is a fugitive from the law under suspicion of being a bioterroist.
There is a beautiful passage early in the book in which Powers speculates through his composer-protagonist, Peter Els, about the sources of musical inspiration: “In the Fall of 2009, while fast walking his dog Fidelio around the long loop of the arboretum, sixty-eight year old Peter Els watched a wet oak leaf fly through the air and stick to his windbreaker.
He peeled the leaf free, studied its surface, and saw rhythms inscribed in the branching veins. He sat down, a little dazed, on a boulder at the side of the path. His hand grazed the rock’s surface, and the pits played pitches like a piano roll on his skin. He looked up.
Phrases floated across the sky in cloud banks and songs skittered in twigs down the staggered shingles of a nearby roof. All around him a massive secret chorus written in extended alternate notation lay ripe for transcribing.” I found this vision of music creation to be liberating, and it prompted me to take a more daring approach to composing than I had attempted in some years.
In this case, what “lay ripe for transcribing” were the rhythms of Powers reading passages from Orfeo. I wrote these out by hand, and then used a computer to generate extended rhythmic phrases based on fragments of these rhythms. What’s more the computer also suggested melodies for these phrases, though these were not based on Powers’ speech intonation. I then transcribed this raw material into instrumental music. Much of the piece is based on these rhythms – quirky, aperiodic, but hopefully supple (at times). At the outset they are played as a light staccato in rhythmic unison.
Later on, each instrument has its own speech rhythm to produce a complex counterpoint, as if several people are speaking at once. Finally, the speech rhythms give way to a lyrical melody in the violin, which carries the piece to its conclusion. If there is any musical representation of the novel’s plot, it is here, as Peter Els comes to terms with his artistic and personal history while police are breaking down the door of his hiding place.
Cadences was commissioned by the Electric Earth Concert Series and premiered in August 2016.