During the height of the pandemic there was chatter within the art world about what affect the lockdowns and health restrictions would have on the art works produced during this time. As my work doesn’t often carry an overt response to current affairs, I noted this conversation with more of a passing interest than a fully engaged debate. That stance has now changed because of my new piece In Tempore Mutationes. It was influenced by, and for the most part exists because of, the pandemic.
May 26, 2020 was the date chosen for the premiere of my short orchestra piece When the Empire Falls by the Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Orchestra. I had written the piece several years before and it had sat dormant on my shelf. I had shown it to Matthew Jones, the musical director of the KWCO, and he decided to program it. I was elated as it had been a long time since I had an orchestra perform one of my compositions. The piece uses a South Indian reductive form. To keep the description simple, this musical process introduces new material as it progresses which leaves the listener in a completely new musical place from where they started. Most Western musical forms have a return to the opening material, thereby creating a sense of completion due to familiarity. This form does not do that but uses rhythm and time to achieve a sense of completion. I had been listening to a rock song around the time of composition called All Empires Fall by the Winnipeg band Waking Eyes. That title intrigued me, and it seemed to work well with what was going on in the piece. The complete sense of change due to the formal use of musical material corresponded with the idea in the title about a changeover in a form of ruling class or government. A whimsical notion at best.
Then the pandemic.
We all know what happened to the world of concerts and live performances. The premiere was cancelled of course, and at the time I wasn’t sure what would happen to the piece. I took the time to focus on an upcoming project that became my streamed concert Slagflower and Other Songs that included the premiere of the song cycle Slagflower Songs. All the while, Empire never left me.
There was something about the piece that called out for a musical answer, even if it never did receive a performance; a work that responded to the statement left by this vigorous piece. Its title also worked its way into my craw. Were we, at this time of serious lockdowns, supply-chain disruptions and climate catastrophes experiencing something like an empire falling? If so, what is our collective response? I pulled out a work for choir that I had written around the same time as the original Empire. It was simply titled Lament. It made sense. After a life-altering event our first response is often grief and sadness at the loss of what was. The frenetic energy of the first movement needed a contemplative response. The original choral piece is a setting of the Latin “Lux Aeterna” and a bit of text I had heard from an elderly aunt on news of her sister’s (my grandmother) passing, “My heart is breaking, but I cannot cry”. The music has a slow pace and moves between large clusters, static chords, and a plaintive melodic line. I orchestrated it and then set this combined work aside once more. It was at this point that I realized I was working towards something symphonic. I decided on a four-movement work based on the classical symphonic form. While this form is dated and “old-fashioned” it provides an opportunity for a wide variety of comment and colour. It then turned to the year 2022 and I heard from Matthew that they had programmed Empire for the new season. I informed him of what I had done with the piece during the past two years and my ultimate plans for it.
Now, let me fill you in on something about the typical Canadian orchestra and how they program premieres. It is generally understood by composers that if you are lucky enough to get one of your pieces programmed it would be a five-minute piece placed at the opening of the concert. The overture. Cynically, it is often regarded as a token bit of CanCon that people could miss by arriving late, but just in time for the concerto. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I mentioned my idea to Matt. I remembered him being a good friend to us composition students when we were classmates at Laurier. In fact, he toured a great piece for recorder solo by a classmate far and wide. To my delight he told me my idea sounded great, and said I was allotted twenty minutes. I set to work. How was I going to handle this?
My view about what this piece was, and how I was going to present it had changed. My usual choice of not delving into programmatic music was not possible anymore. The pandemic had changed my art. Instead of an abstract notion of change within a musical form, I was dealing with titles that may have taken on a whole new reality. As I mentioned earlier, I prefer not to work with direct programmatic elements in my music. If I do use descriptive titles, they will hint at notions or suggestions that can be used by the audience to move deeper into the emotional experience of the music. Looking around at the social tensions and polarizations that were intensified by the pandemic situation, I decided to approach the rest of the symphony as a narrative while using the structure of a classical symphony. This meant four movements divided as such: a large opening movement, followed by a slow movement, a faster third movement, then a finale. I had the first two completed that represent the initial societal rupture followed by a period of mourning. For the third movement I chose a classical scherzo as a model. It became a parody of what’s known as a scherzo-and-trio, a classical form in an ABA structure with the middle section being an almost new piece. It was very common for Haydn, Mozart and their contemporaries to use the minuet and trio dance forms in their symphonies. Beethoven altered this into the faster scherzo but retained the dance-like feel in triple meter. The general lighter quality of the form worked as a slight palette cleanser after the grander notions of the first and second movements. I wasn’t going to have any of that. I titled the movement Which Side Are You On? There is confusion, jarring rhythms, noise, and call-backs to the first movement. I do not attempt to answer the question posed in the title. That is for the listener to ponder along with how the question is asked.
For the final movement I wanted to leave the audience with at least a glimmer of hope. It is the shortest piece in the set clocking in at about two minutes. It is titled Into the Unknown (Coda). It is a piece that wraps everything up by launching the orchestra into a glorious fanfare. Where does all this tumult lead? We do not know, but wherever it ends up let’s hope that it is a better place for everyone.
The complete symphony needed a title that reflected this journey. I chose a non-English phrase as it places a bit more distance between the listener and the music, forcing a bit more work in the interpretation of the piece. In Tempore Mutationes is Latin for “In Changing Times”. These are the times we live in, and we need to know how to deal with it whether we choose to change with them or not. Which way will you decide?
The Kitchener-Waterloo Chamber Orchestra perform the world premiere of In Tempore Mutationes on October 16, 2022 3pm at Knox Presbyterian Church, 50 Erb Street West, Waterloo, Ontario. Please go to www.kwchamberorchestra.ca for more information. A live stream of the concert will be at the website with donations accepted.
Trisha L Unwin
10/23/2022 02:56:13 pm
That was incredibly well expressed Owen. It gave me new things to consider when I hear your piece. Thank you!
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