Motherwhere takes its title from the first of Zsófia Bánʼs 2007 book of stories titled Night School: A Reader for Grownups. I was so taken by her collection of 21 distinct and tremendously varied—though at the same time, deeply related—tales that I wanted to evoke, musically, the experience of reading her book. By way of a Joycean pun, I decided to convert her “bag-of-tales” into 21 connected bagatelles for strings that trace the emotional thread of her stories as they move from Motherwhereʼs absence (the first story) through the unexpected (and unprepared) “Miraculous Return of Laughter” of the final story.
The 19 intervening stories cover a huge range: there are quasi-historical recounts of artists, explorers, mathematicians, writers and their paramours; autobiographical reminiscences (real or imagined); recreations of operatic and literary plots. Two separate stories (the fifth and seventeenth), otherwise entirely unrelated, meet on the 107th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center on the crystal-clear morning of September 11, 2001. The Holocaust casts its grotesque shadow over a number of stories, as do the absurd realities of life in a Soviet republic. Running through them all, though, are a few fundamental themes: absence (personified by “Motherwhere”), the female perspective, the idea of home. Somewhat unexpectedly, all are suffused with great humor and wit.
In order to capture all of this musically, I needed to frame my work with several musical “fundamentals” that would tie my bagatelles together while allowing me the freedom to move rapidly between very different emotional states. I settled on three concepts that cycle through the entire set of 21 bagatelles: symmetry (primarily pitch-based, with the D above middle C acting as fulcrum), the open strings, and the exploration of like-interval sonorities (sections based mostly on seconds, thirds, fourths, etc.). This intervallic concept allowed me to indulge in another pun: I answer the lack of “Motherwhere” that begins my concerto with the Mutterakkord (it closes the work), an all-interval 12-tone sonority that has inspired many other composers, most notably Alban Berg (who uses it as a source row for his Lyrische Suite).
Motherwhere is presented as a single, 24-minute work, but its 21 bagatelles are grouped into 5, 3, 5, 3, and 5 bagatelles, with short silences separating these groups—otherwise, the bagatelles are attacca or joined by a sustained sonority or overlapping idea. Despite these attacca connections, it is possible to aurally follow the shift from one bagatelle to the next as they are most often highly contrastive. As a further listening aid: four bagatelles (the third, eighth, tenth, and seventeenth) are for the solo quartet alone, and the central bagatelle (the eleventh) is for the string orchestra alone.
This is the third large work I have written for the Parker Quartet, and I cannot overstate my admiration for them as people and players. They understand my music so well, and always perform it with aplomb. I am a lucky composer to have them as collaborators. I am beyond delighted to be writing for the first time for the New York Classical Players which, under their Music Director Dongmin Kim, is one of the best string ensembles I have had the good fortune to hear. Finally, I am so grateful to Zsófi for blessing my attempts to respond to her words through this concerto. I love her book, her perspective, and her voice. I canʼt wait to read whatever follows next from her pen.