Nothing (2004)

  • Instrumentation: flt, flt, flt, sop sax, alto sax, ten sax, bari sax, perc, perc, vln, vln, vla, vc, cb
  • Duration: 8’00
  • Performers: Flutes: Emma Tessier, Annick Santschi, Emma Elkin­son, Sax­o­phones: Soprano – Tris­tan DeBorba, Alto – Rafal Kaczor, Tenor – Rob Mosher, Bari­tone – Jamie Wilkie, Per­cus­sion: Richard Bur­rows, Nicholas Jacques, Vio­lins: Kenin McKay, Marcin Swo­boda, Viola – Alex McLeod, Vio­lon­cello – Kirk Starkey, Double Bass – Mandi Byrd, Con­duc­tor – Aaron Gervais

Program Notes

Why call a piece Nothing? Well, in a word, curiosity—most of my music has as its theme the question, “What happens if…?” At the time I was writing Nothing (winter 2004), I was bothered by the almost total reliance on motivic development and form to generate local and long-term interest in Western music. I wondered if it might be possible to “hear” something as a coherent (and enjoyable) piece of music without recourse to any formal or motivic repetition. Hence, the title Nothing is a reference to the central problem of the piece: “What happens if I have nothing (in the traditional sense) to connect with?”

I have since come to view this issue as a specific case of the general problems of musical cognition and our (largely) unquestioned appropriation of organizational paradigms developed for and by eighteenth-century empiricism. Nevertheless, the result remains the same, and as anyone who has tried to compose can tell you, having nothing is the same as having everything—there are endless choices. So I had to find an alternative focus, and I decided to return to very basic methods of hearing as a way of connecting musical material. For example, instead of using melodic/harmonic motives, the opening of the piece uses a juxtaposition of pitched and non-pitched elements to grab the listener’s attention. Exactly which specific pitched and non-pitched elements are used is relatively unimportant; the low-level contrast between harmonic and inharmonic sound spectra is what makes the music interesting.

Of course, this doesn’t completely sidestep motivic and formal organization, but it does push it back to a level that is generally not dealt with exclusively. Motives and form become synonymous with techniques and material: pitched versus non-pitched; rhythmic versus non-rhythmic; these instruments together versus those instruments together; and so on. Nothing is not the kind of piece that is inspired by symmetrical patterns or pyramidal short-term/long-term interrelation—there are connecting links, as demanded by musical cognition, but if you come looking for developmental strategies of that sort, be prepared to end up with a whole lot of nothing.