I composed Nocturne in the fall of 1997, while studying composition with George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania. For many years, George taught a class on Chopin, in which he and his students would play through and analyze all of Chopinʼs piano music, beginning with the nocturnes. I was inspired to try my hand at a nocturne, not in imitation of Chopinʼs style (though we did do that in class, too), but by Georgeʼs description of the nocturne as something that sought to arrest the flow of time and that was infused with the magic and mystery of the night (he also loved and often cited the night music from Bartókʼs Out of Doors in this regard).
My Nocturne is built of fragments of ideas that exist in a kind of gravity-free, fantastic world. There is little development of these ideas, and whatever formal drama obtains in the piece derives from their sounding in constantly shifting environments. Mahlerian oscillating minor thirds (as occur in the last movement of Das Lied von der Erde) equally divide the octave (sounding on B-flat, F-sharp, and D), and whole-tone constellations abound. A lengthier, modal melody begins in the viola in bar 23 and is answered by the violin in what seems to be the exposition of a fugue, but this is quickly interrupted by further variations on the opening fragments. The modal “fugue” returns much later, adding a third voice (an inversion of the original theme, in the cello), and this music burgeons, oblivious to the rhapsodizing flute flitting above; but what feels like a potential culmination of ideas merely peters out after a few bars, and a simple coda follows, tenuously uniting the fugal tuneʼs modality with a new transposition of the Mahlerian thirds from before.
As I recall, Nocturne caused me a lot of trouble to compose. It is a slight piece—barely seven minutes long—but unique among my works in that it seeks something ephemeral, exotic. I donʼt know if I knew George Rochbergʼs Serenata dʼestate when I was composing Nocturne, but they strike me as bearing a kinship: similarly brief and equally suffused with the magic of the natural world.