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Perceptual spaces in PERIPHER. A new work for percussion and chamber orchestra


The expression “peripher” implies spatial dimensions, it implies transcending boundaries and possible ventures to novel, less explored territories. What these “boundaries” and these “novel territories” stand for, or how these could be understood is not easily definable. In the conception of structure and what concerns compositional material, PERIPHER distinguishes between stable, more tangible states versus fluctuating, harder to grasp musical material. The latter is particularly expressed through timbrally complex and composite textures. Here the string section is heavily subdivided, special playing techniques as “col legno battuto” or “sul ponticello” prevent a clear discernment of pitch, the winds play breathy fleeting figures and the brasses support this action by producing predominantly air sounds. The amount of musical information to process at once and the challenge of recognizability are conceptually related to distance, to the periphery of perspicacity. In contrast, nearness is perceived through easily discernible harmonies and pitches, uniformly executed rhythms, and in general, conditions that a listener is more likely to remember and to be cognizant of. PERIPHER thus aims to explore a juxtaposition of spaces that present themselves on a conceptual level within the structure of the composition, physically by means of the orchestration, and finally perceptually by which the listener is invited to find his or her own interpretation of the suggested spatial relationships and dimensions.
This article presents a conversation on the perceptual spaces presented in PERIPHER. Two viewpoints are presented: One by the composer with an introduction to the musical material, and a second one by scholar and colleague Jason Rosenberg, who witnessed the premiere of the piece, thus reflecting on the effectiveness of perceptual spaces presented to the listener.


The role of the percussion

PERIPHER is scored for percussion and chamber orchestra. The richness of the timbral world of the percussion instruments, from the clarity of a high pitched Japanese woodblock to the noisy and complex sounds of the wind chimes and the manifold cymbal family, makes this group the perfect advocate of the described perceptual spaces. The composition commences with distinct heralding strokes on the woodblocks that gather the attention of the audience and announce the departure of PERIPHER’s musical journey. In this introductory section, the percussion shakes and awakes the orchestra by triggering soft, airy and hazy textures in the strings and winds.

Listening example 1

At the same time the woodblocks reveal little by little the underlying poetic message: “départ dans l’affection et les bruits neufs” (departure into affection and new noises), an excerpt from Arthur Rimbaud’s “Départ”, Les Illuminations (1873 – 1875).

Listening example 2

Figure 1. shows the rhythmicized phrase that appears for the first time in its full exposure in m23 + m24.

As the listener follows the percussion line further, one will notice that the part moves from easily distinguishable sounds (woodblocks, congas, marimba) to rather distorted and diffused noises (bass drum, tubes, cymbals), underlying Rimbaud’s notion of setting out towards uncharted noisy surroundings. Meanwhile, the relationship with the rest of the orchestra is not that overtly discernable. Throughout the opening section, the woodblock and conga motives take on a solid and dominating role, while the string and wind textures scamper fleetingly and variably through the score, like “sound-clouds”. However 2’45 minutes into the piece (m56), guided by the percussion, the entire orchestra consolidates to a powerful saltatory cascading texture. Later on in PERIPHER we encounter moments, where the entire orchestra appears in forceful uniform rhythms (m138 + m147), while the soloist steps into the background delivering fragmentary and succinct accentuations performed on the marimba and tubes. During the climax at roughly 7’45 minutes (m186), the percussion passes through a crucial evolutionary moment, when it bursts out into rapid and splashing strokes on the cymbal tree. This is the protagonist’s arrival into the “bruits neufs”, the noisiest moment of the piece so far.

Listening example 3

For the remainder of the piece, the percussion indulges into a playful performance with a variety of shivering and shuttering cymbals, while the orchestra returns to a brittlely and scraping noise texture. These sounds will be familiar to the listener. However, at this time, the perception of such is heavily influenced by the altered context in which they take place. Details will be discussed in the following section on structure.

From what has been stated about the integration of the percussion, it takes on a central role in provoking and impelling movement and setting up changes and climactic moments. Moreover, the soloist is placed in the middle of the orchestra, the strings placed in symmetry around him or her: the violin I and violoncelli to the left, the violin II and violas to the right. Behind the percussionist the elevated winds to the left, and the brass to the right. The composer makes use of this set up by, on the one hand emphasizing the center position of the percussion with circular shifting sound textures around it, and, on the other hand, by supporting the idea of perceptual distances by orchestrating scattered, timbrally blurred motives onto the periphery of the orchestral body. The percussion, however, is also a constant on its journey towards the new noises. While the orchestra dodges around, flutters and crackles, slaps and hails long sustained chords, pointing to various degrees of stability, the percussion stays focused on its trajectory, suggesting a continuous development from the beginning to the end.


Details of structure

This leads to the question of structure. As mentioned, PERIPHER deals with distances: nearness and remoteness, stability and instability. The percussion features a trajectory from strong, clearly pitched and graspable material (considered “near”) to the blurry diffused sounds of the cymbals (considered “distant”). The orchestra, surrounding the soloist, however, has a less directional path. To help the reader understand and place the different musical moments within the discourse of “perceptual spaces”, a number of excerpts have been chosen that point distinctively towards a variety of stretches along the perceptual axis.

Speaking of clarity and presence, the listener will most likely remember the polyrhythmical passages between the unison woodwinds and the strings at m138+m139 and m147-m154,

Listening example 4

as well as the dramatic chordal resolution points at m186 and m200.

Listening example 5

M138 comes as a surprise. The listener has been introduced to the sound of the “jeté”[1] figures that resemble strongly the “col legno battuto”[2] figures that appeared throughout the beginning of PERIPHER. But instead of being on the periphery of perception, embedded in densely bustling textures and performed only by a small group of string players, here from the first violin to the last bassist, everyone is playing the same rhythm, with strong accents and fortissimo. At the same time, the woodwinds perform all together an equally forceful counter rhythm, built upon repeated figures of triplet notes. It is a powerful moment that steps to the foreground and viscerally approaches the listener.

Contrasting, but not less present, is the culmination of harmonic and rhythmic anticipation at m186, where all winds resolve into a long anticipated chord built upon the overtone spectrum of a gong sound. Here, the orchestra arrives at a moment of ultimate clarity; the sounds are bright, strong and identifiable. The chord sustains over several seconds, engulfing every single listener in the audience.

In between, the orchestra withdraws to intermittently emerging amorphous sound-clouds, making use of a variety of extended playing techniques that highlight each instrumental group’s noise and sound color palette. For instance, air sound attacks in the winds (m24 + m77, figure 2 + 3),

Figure 2

Figure 2


Figure 3

and vertical bowing (m91),

Figure 4

or fingers slapping against the neck in the strings (m40).

Figure 5

These are sounds not easily distinguishable. Often they appear within a blend of several instruments, or they are executed at a very low dynamic; ephemerally they come and go. These appearances take place at the fringe of perception.

Listening example 6, m38-m43

What supports the effect of the “fringe” is the specific care of spatialization. Particularly during the opening section of PERIPHER, the composer uses orchestration to place distinct sonic occurrences within the ensemble body that not only seem at times remote to the audience, but also entangle the percussion and pay tribute to its leadership. Throughout this section, suspense builds up by means of a playful succession of the thickening and loosening of these textural fabrics, while single elements, like a sharp crescendo within the brass, or a quick run in the woodwinds heighten the expectation for a complete rupture and consolidation of the scattered orchestral sounds. And this surely takes place at m56

Listening example 7

and again at m104. Both of these places mark another abrupt change in texture, tempo and dynamics.

[1] A bowing technique, where the string players drops the bow onto the strings.
Beating figures performed with the wooden part of the bow.

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