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29 July 2010

ASQ National Composers' Forum: Composer Blog - Melody Eötvös

Melody Eötvös Image: Melody Eötvös  

[Update 14 September 2010 - links added]
When I decided to write Olber's Dance, as always, it was fundamental to the task that I knew what this piece of music was going to be about. A good friend of mine had recently pointed out how significant a change in the night sky was when you were in a different hemisphere and that once you noticed this it could actually have quite a strong effect on you. While abroad in the US I thought about this often (usually walking home late at night from a recital or class). So it seemed appropriate to explore this thought some more and I discovered Olber's Paradox in a familiar 'physics facts' book that I often refer to out of curiosity.

The paradox goes something like this: at night, step outside and, weather permitting, take a look at the brightly lit backbone in the sky. On a clear night your observations made of the night sky can be every bit as profound as Einstein's or Kepler's. The fact that the night sky is dark, and not as bright as the burning star at the centre of our solar system, tells us the most fundamental thing about our universe. This is what Olber's paradox illuminates for us. The catch in Olber's paradox is that it is impossible for the universe to be infinitely large because, if it were, there would not be a dark sky at night, due to every point in our line of sight being taken up by the forever existing light of a star, whether near or far, similar to the way you are not able to catch sight of the landscape which sits just beyond a dense forest of trees stretching out for miles and miles. The most remarkable thing about this paradox is that is reveals so much about the physical universe in such a simple way.

Capturing and expressing this sentiment in music involved lining up both the obvious and some more abstract (i.e. completely invented) parallels between the components of the paradox (the stars, the notion of expansion and also the impossible part of the paradox in all points of light existing at the same time) and the sound world. Some of these include sound smudging like light, intrusive or blending pointed pizzicato, all motion directed toward an edge which continues to expand outward, and a flux between rich walls of sound and spaces constructed with a more silent, bright environment in mind.

Capturing and expressing this with a string quartet required a different and more markedly attentive compositional approach to what I had ever attempted before. I was well aware of the technique involved in writing a string quartet, courtesy of my deep obsession with Bartok and the Debussy/Ravel masterpieces, and was determined to pay close attention to how I constructed the layers around my Olber-concept. One of the most beautiful things I love about the string quartet is its ability to sound several times larger than the obvious four instruments that it is. So part of my concern was also exploring this aspect of the ensemble and structuring the expansion of sound and texture around the overall outlay of the piece.

While I dearly hoped that Olber's Dance would be performed by the ASQ with their experienced, professional and outstanding players, I put a great deal of effort into not letting the technical difficulty of what I was demanding of each player get out of hand.

Further links

Melody Eötvös - website
Melody Eötvös - ASQ National Composers' Forum, composer blog, part 2
Thomas Green - ASQ National Composers' Forum, composer blog, part 1
Thomas Green - ASQ National Composers' Forum, composer blog, part 2
Adam Starr - ASQ National Composers' Forum, composer blog part 2
Adam Starr - ASQ National Composers' Forum, composer blog, part 1
Mark Holdsworth - ASQ National Composers' Forum, composer blog, part 1
Ross Carey - ASQ National Composers' Forum, composer blog

Subjects discussed by this article:

Melody Eötvös is currently studying in the Phd Composition program at Indiana University.


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