bas relief (2007)

for 'cello, violin, viola, piano, bass clarinet
By Kyle Bartlett

Every time I listen to the music of Iannis Xenakis, I am strengthened by its enormous physicality and authenticity, its willingness to break through aesthetic and bodily boundaries and explore unmapped musical territory. I feel like my compositional muscles pump up and I am able and willing to conquer whatever lies ahead of me. Thinking about Xenakis, Bas Relief emerged from architectural metaphors for musical space. I thought about the musical space of the first movement, “Shimmering Oscillations with Bands of Light,” as a solid, something that can be carved, manipulated—much like a piece of rock that a sculptor will shape to reveal the object of his artistic vision. I laid down six strata, and like different layers of sedimentary rock, each stratum has its own character, color, and density. I then selectively stripped or ground away strata to show the layers underneath. This stripping away creates shifts in the relative intensity or “presence” of the various musical lines, showing their colors and characters more dramatically. While they tirelessly drill through these layers, the players are allowed to switch between strata at will, lending a shimmering or oscillating quality to the representation. Thus, although the musical space is a solid, its particles vibrate, much like light is both a particle and a wave.

The second movement is inspired more by organic forms, by the modular patterning and repetition one sees in structures like seashells, sunflowers, and honeycombs (the architectures of the biological world). “Smorzando come sospiro” (“dying away like a sigh”) comes from a simple sequence of piano chords. The left- and right-hand portions of the chords have been sliced apart and recombined with a limited set of their transpositions. With this presentation of small cells in various combinations I created not an army of cloned modules, but a natural collection of brothers and sisters with a family resemblance. The form consists of three manifestations of a series of these chords: A, A’, A’’. Each time is different, forming the inhalation, hesitation, and exhalation. I hoped to create the feeling of an organic, hovering object, held aloft by the spareness of its musical materials.—KB

Other works by Kyle Bartlett:
“Once when father (George Ives) was asked: 'How can you stand it to hear old John Bell (who was the best stonemason in town) bellow off-key the way he does at camp-meetings?' his answer was: 'Old John is a supreme musician. Look into his face and hear the music of the ages. Don't pay too much attention to the sounds. If you do, you may miss the music. You won't get a heroic ride to Heaven on pretty little sounds!'”
--Charles Ives