In the midst of the 2019–20 winter season, I was a guest lecturer for the Chameleon Arts Ensemble of Bostonʼs “Up Close” concert featuring works by Debussy and Gubaidulina for flute, viola, and harp, and works by Foote and Ravel (the Salzedo arrangement of his Sonatine) for flute, cello, and harp (presented, as they often are, with viola instead of cello). I had been wanting to write a flute, viola, and harp trio for Deb Boldin and her Chameleon Arts Ensemble for some time, and the opportunity to immerse myself in these major works for the ensemble while turning my own hand to it was irresistible. I decided that I would begin and complete a new trio entirely during the winter season, that it would truly be a “winter work.”
I sought an inspirational frame for my piece in the poetry of Georg Trakl, whose work I have set, and whose dreamy, symbolist aesthetic felt appropriate to what I had in mind. I found what I was looking for in “Winternacht,” a poem that roughly describes the nocturnal adventures of “you”—“you leave the dark abode of humans…you stamp along the rail embankment…your legs ring out like blue ice…your brow grows pale from the rapture of the frost”—until toward the end of the poem when this “you” is abstracted to “the body”: “Silent and lost to oblivion the chill body melts in the silver snow.”
This “story”—of an individual traipsing through the snow (for reasons and with a destination unknown), who ultimately succumbs to the cold, lying down for one last “sleep”—matches what I imagine informs Debussyʼs “Des pas sur la neige” from his first book of Preludes for Piano. Indeed, Debussyʼs prelude is like a ghost that haunts my work, and though I never quote the famous walking figure with which Debussyʼs piece begins, I do reference the end of his prelude—a plagal cascade through G/D fifths falling to a final, unexpectedly widely-spaced D minor chord—twice in my work, as the premonition and then representation of our heroʼs final sleep.
The Trakl poem, however, does not end with this sleep: “On awakening, the village bells tolled. Through the eastern gate the roseate day appeared all in silver.” So my work comes in two large parts, the first “setting” the journey of our hero, and the second featuring an extended “chaconne découvrir,” in which the underlying chaconne-esque chord progression is only gradually revealed through nineteen seven-bar cycles of a diminishingly incomplete progression (the complete progression is finally heard in the seventeenth cycle) that parallels the sensory clarity that obtains with the encroaching light of day.
This apparently happy ending is decidedly un-Trakl, and, indeed, it is not clear that the hero has awakened at all—it could rather be the village (or the day) rousing itself—and the “roseate day” that dawns reminds one of the famous marinerʼs rhyme that concludes “red sky at morning, shepherds take warning.” I sought a music that had something dichotomous about it, something triumphantly inevitable, but tinged with cognitive as well as chordal dissonance.
I finished Winternacht on March 18, the day before the spring equinox, during the first full week that many in the United States were being urged to socially distance ourselves from one another to stem the tide of a rapidly spreading, new coronavirus.