Un-sticking the wheels

February 20, 2008

Wheels within wheels is the second piece I’ve been commissioned to write for cello and piano duo Oliver Gledhill and David Christophersen (the first was When the Magus reads the Night Sky, which they premiered in 2003). It picks up an idea I started on a couple of years ago, where the different instruments trace melodies which turn and return on various different levels, at different rates, all the time, like some kind of musical planetary system (to be precise, like the system of ‘epicycles’ put forward by Ptolemy, which assumes Earth to be at the centre, and accounts for the planet’s complex pathways with remarkable accuracy.  See a demonstration of how it works on youtube, or try Ptolemy meets Homer Simpson).

It’s an inspiring idea, but difficult to realise without getting tied into cycles and schemes which can go stale when you’re halfway through them. After a promising start two years ago I got thoroughly stuck, and put the piece away. The request from David Christophersen prompted me to get the piece out again. It took a while to disentangle the threads and to find a way forward that wouldn’t lead back into the same dead ends that I’d been staring at before, but in the end I found another direction to go in, and from then on things went with a swing. The piece is largely serene, but runs into a very sombre ending which was not at all what I was expecting; when it came to it, the turn towards darkness suddenly seemed necessary and unavoidable. The first performance will be on February 25 in West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge.

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