Corvus Mythicus was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the installation of Large Crow I, the elegantly imposing bronze sculpture by Dutch artist Arie Van Selm. Mentions of crows and ravens (they are distinct species within the common genus “corvus”) pepper the mythologies of cultures worldwide, and since the croaky “songs” of these majestic animals are humble at best, I decided to focus my musical evocation of them on these various mythic manifestations.
The Hindu Bhusunda was a sage who took the form of a crow and lived through many epochs, perched on a magical tree on Mount Meru. The music that opens Corvus Mythicus evokes his patient gaze, and returns throughout the piece to observe the pieceʼs successive affects. Quicker music follows Bhusundaʼs, recalling the “trickster” nature of crows noted by indigenous peoples of the American Pacific Northwest. Their skittish music is interrupted by the claves, the sole percussion instrument in Corvus Mythicus. The simple but wonderfully expressive clicking of the claves echoes the tapping of Poeʼs eponymous bird in “The Raven” (the only modern corvid in my piece), a poem that has, since its appearance in 1845, assumed the aura and ubiquity of an American myth.
Poeʼs raven ceasing to tap, Corvus Mythicus proceeds across the Atlantic to Viking northern Europe, home to the Norse god Odin and his trusted raven companions Huginn (“thought”) and Muninn (“memory”). Their music comprises two affects, distinct but related: an accompaniment first heard in the clarinet and bassoon, busily industrious under a more reflective, expressive melodic duet first heard in the piccolo and oboe (these two pairs later swap roles). Poeʼs raven interrupts this music, too, and diverts Corvus Mythicus to ancient Greece, where the mildly antagonistic characters of the North are reconciled in a four-part hymn inspired by the healer Apollo (whose bird was the crow). In this section, even Poeʼs raven is a participant in, and no longer a dissuader of, the general affect.
From this brief incidence of unity, the piccolo takes flight to conclude Corvus Mythicus with a curious, fast epilogue, engendering the raven that Noah sent scouting from his long-afloat ark: it “went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from the earth” (Gen. 8:7). I originally thought this final section would be elegiac, remembering how the Swiss composer Arthur Honegger beautifully represents the dove of peace at the end of his Third Symphony. But when I finally came to end Corvus Mythicus, this music tended instead toward nervously searching, finding no rest. Little wonder: it was early January 2021, and there was much in the world to cause apprehension, particularly in the United States. And so contemporary reality intervened in my meditations on mostly ancient myths.
When I started composing Corvus Mythicus, I made what felt like an intuitive, abstract musical choice: I would only present its wind instruments—piccolo, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon—in pairs. I did this simply because it felt right to me to do it, and throughout the piece, one can listen exclusively to the trading of pairs as a kind of choreography. To enhance the effect, I ask the players to spread out far from one another, surrounding the audience. I was delighted to discover, well after deciding to pair the winds, that many cultures consider crows that come in pairs to be symbols of good luck. In this spirit, I offer this brief, occasional work to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra: may it augur an auspicious future for the DSO, and for us all.