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Invocation to the veiled mysteries : sextet

by Jennifer Fowler (1982)

Audio Sample

Performance by Seymour Group, Stuart Challender from the CD Works of Jennifer Fowler. Transcriptions Disc 3

Works of Jennifer Fowler. Transcriptions Disc 3


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Work Overview

On being asked to write for a small group of strings, woodwind and piano, the obvious immediate problem is how to deal with the piano. Quite apart from the disproportionate power of which the piano is capable, one also has to take into account the stereotype of the piano as an instrument used for the projection of blatant ego-centred virtuosity.

One of the aspects of music which fascinates me, is the question of phrasing. I am interested in the physical response engendered by different kinds of phrasing. A piece which is very continuous and complex, and allows no time to breathe, can create enormous tension and stress. A piece which is very short-winded (I sometimes call it "stop-start music") can be very irritating and can even leave one gasping with a kind of induced asthma. I would like to return to a "natural" phrasing, but one cannot take such a traditional stance without a certain self-consciousness.

To return to the piano: one of its limitation is its inability to phrase, except by faking. No note can link to the previous one by a subtle crescendo. Each note dies away from the moment of striking. There is no necessity to breathe. There is an enormous range, but no change of tone over the different registers. Except perhaps at the very extremes of the keyboard, there is no feeling of effort involved in simply achieving a note at a certain pitch. (Think of the goose-pimpled excitement of a soprano high C. The same note played on the flute is not so exciting, because it is not at the extreme of the range, but it does convey a real sense of "highness". Played on the piano, it is one note among all the others). This lack of psychological response to the pitch of a note also makes it difficult to convey a sense of goal orientation. It is something that has to be consciously compensated for (for instance, in tonal music, by the excitement of a delayed return of the tonic key), or used in a positive way as a deliberate limitation.

In this piece, I have taken a fairly extreme solution to the problem of "what to do with the piano". The solution will be apparent on hearing the piece, but I could perhaps hint that I found it useful to remember the didjeridoo: an instrument capable of playing a range of notes, but usually limited to two notes, and used as a rhythm instrument. I am always attracted by the challenge of what one can do within strict limits.

If one severely limits the piano, then one can use the piano's contribution as a sort of cool frame of ironic detachment, within which it is possible to allow the other instruments the free use (perhaps even Romantic use?) of phrasing in crescendos and decrescendos, acceleration and decelerations, and goal-directed progression.

Perhaps the title of the piece conveys something of this sense of a ritual framework provided by, say, a religious event (the didjeridoo again?) within which the individual may have his own emotional experiences. "Invocation" is perhaps the pre-planned part of the event. The "mysteries" are the part for which it is impossible to plan, and which remain obsinately veiled except within the individual imagination.

Work Details

Year: 1982

Instrumentation: Flute, clarinet, bassoon/contrabassoon, violin, cello, piano.

Duration: 15 min.

Difficulty: Advanced

Dedication note: for Martin

Commission note: Commissioned by Seymour Group with funds provided by Australia Council.

First performance: by Seymour Group — 30 Oct 82. Sydney

Performances of this work

27 Jun 85: ANZ Pavilion, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne. Featuring New Ensemble, John Hopkins.

30 Oct 82: Sydney. Featuring Seymour Group.

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