Positive Space By Matthew Whittall

Well, here I am again. “To achieve great things,” Leonard Bernstein is reputed to have said, “two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” I’ll be perhaps dangerously frank here: I’m not a new music ensemble guy. The sonic traditions I grew up in and internalized are the choir and the orchestra. I like big masses of matching sounds. Chamber music? Fine, but somewhat reluctantly. Large mixed ensembles freak me out, an uncharted expanse somewhere in between chamber ensemble and orchestra where timbres don’t blend easily and balances are hard to imagine. My only previous mixed ensemble piece, Negative Space, was written under similar circumstances, in a hurry, after a project that had taken longer than it should have. (Pro tip: never start a major home renovation with a tight deadline looming.) I swore to myself I’d never repeat that scenario, and yet…

And yet. Back then I discovered that having enough time focuses the mind in surprising ways. You learn quickly not to second-guess yourself. No time means getting straight to the heart of the process, setting aside the ego – very much the core of the minimalist music I love – and letting the piece be what it wants to be. The only question is where the material wants to go today. In those weeks in 2011, I found myself enjoying composing more than I had in years, playing with ideas, textures, styles, letting disparate things crowd into the frame in a way I hadn’t allowed myself to do in a long time. I was proud of the result, and people seemed to like it.

This one I’d set out to make different from the moment I got the call to write a piece for Crash Ensemble – a group that’s recorded music by some of my favorite living composers, pieces that changed my outlook with their freshness and originality. It’s a quality that derives, I think, directly from their unusual instrumentation. (Their patient answers to my every dumb question about that unusual instrumentation helped greatly.)

Where Negative Space has radically differing ideas photobombing each other throughout, drawing the listener’s attention to different objects, like a museum exhibit, I wanted this piece to be seamless, as organic as possible. I needed a concept, a way of unifying the object before I sat down to work on it. I normally start with a title as a window into the world of the piece. (I briefly debated calling it Not quite enough time, but that felt like tempting fate.)

The image I latched onto in the end was one I’d read about a few days before I got the gig. The star system TRAPPIST-1 was all over the news then, seven Earth-sized planets locked in a wonderfully musical, tightly packed orbital dance around a tiny, dim star at a ratio of 2:3:4:6:9:15:24. That fits neatly into a bar of 6/4 time, I’d thought as I perused an article, but what use could I make of that?

A large mixed ensemble turned out to be the perfect vehicle. How do you get a trombone to blend with an electric guitar, a piccolo, a piano? (A viola!?) You don’t, really. But putting different instruments, or better, different colors, into independent rhythmic “orbits”, giving them pulses and patterns and dynamic curves of their own so that they interact in new ways each time they recur? That’s a pretty cool idea. (Stick a mute in the trombone and it blends nicely.)

No one player gets to do anything especially individual or virtuosic. When all the parts interlock, though, the larger image becomes clear. This, to me, is the true spirit of minimalism more than repeated pulses and harmonic stasis: a kind of collective virtuosity that emerges when everyone performs the small task assigned to them in perfect synchronicity. The materials I used ended up being incredibly simple: a repeated pulse, a pair of oscillating major/minor triads, a couple of seventh chords, all floating in free play. That’s it. Hydrogen and oxygen.

Working on this music was a kind of homecoming. Growing up, I was obsessed with space travel and exploration, and the immense distances and timespans of the universe. My favorite book when I was six was Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. (I was a weird kid.) I wanted nothing more than to be an astronomer – until I got to high school and discovered that I had no aptitude for science. But the fascination remained, and writing this piece became a way of taking a virtual tour of that alien system, so different from ours. I imagined seeing it from each planet, how the other worlds would look, floating freakishly close in the sky, how the atmosphere would feel, the ambient light, and let the music grow out of those images.

The trip starts with the system slowly coming into view, its resonant pulses becoming audible. There’s a relaxed groove in the habitable zone around the fourth planet, a zone of free flight amid the stars – EBowed electric guitar, piano and waterphone provide the view – and a moment of planetary alignment in slowly building chords. There’s a lugubrious sojourn among the outer planets, far from the star’s weak light, a rough takeoff back into space, and a high-speed swing past the inner planets on our way to hearing the whole system begin to ring as one. There’s an extended passage of bittersweet elegy before the coda, a brief, oblique view of the preceding material as the view recedes. In the end, as with Negative Space, composing this piece was more fun than I’ve had in years, exploring a soundworld far from my experience.

Resonance Orbits was commissioned by Helsinki Musica nova for its 2019 festival. It is dedicated with infinite gratitude to the Crash Ensemble, and to the memory of my friend and colleague Jovanka Trbojević, who didn’t have nearly enough time.

- Matthew Whitthall


Catch Crash Ensemble performing the premiere of Resonance Orbit by Matthew Whitthall this weekend at Musica Nova Helsinki