for three alto saxes, three violas, three sopranos & drum kit
text by Elizabeth Bishop
duration: 7 minutes

Commissioned / premiered by:

the Opus Zero Band & Steven Dennis Bodner, director
premiered on May 8, 2010 at Chapin Hall, Williamstown, MA

About the work:

A setting of the first stanza of the Elizabeth Bishop poem of the same name, which reads:

The great light cage has broken up in the air,
Freeing, I think, about a million birds
Whose wild ascending shadows will not be back,
And all the wires come falling down.

I love Bishop’s poetry because of its lyrical, understated language and the strange power of its imagery. The images in these four lines are both fantastical and enigmatic: a cage of light disintegrating in the air, its wires falling down to earth and releasing the shadows of millions of birds. But the title of the poem grounds these images in the physical world, employing them to elucidate on something as simple as a rainstorm. That’s why the poem never comes across as purely fantastic: its imagery is used to openly examine the quality of a moment in time, not just deployed as empty descriptive language.

My music is similarly concerned with constructing a kind of moment in time, eschewing quick shifts or hurried development in favor of a careful examination and breakdown of a simple melodic phrase. Within the three main instrumental choirs (saxophones, violas and sopranos), much of the music is imitative and canonic, which blurs the horizontal movement of the piece and, I think, is a clearly audible analog to the motion of birds flying in groups.

But even more than imitating natural behavior or trying to slow the passing of time, the procedures, timbral choices and structure of this piece were designed to create a coherent and resonant mood. There is a kind of beautiful, wide-eyed quality to Bishop’s poetic voice, as she turns the ordinary into the lyrical, a passing moment into a wide and richly evocative landscape. My goal with this piece was to do the same with music, hopefully creating an acoustic space that invites listeners to consider the power of something that, at first glance, seems simple.