Rock Formations

Rock Formations was composed in 2014-2015 on commission by the Capitol Quartet.

The result is a Jekyll-and-Hyde type of composition in two movements. The title is a pun on the rock-influence of my style and its geological counterpart. “Obsidian” is the dark side of, more than anything else, harmony. It is more freely-composed than its “Crystal” counterpart, and eschews consonance in favor of tonal abandon and rhythmic drive. Beginning with the nastiest opening chord I could think of, it evolves–or steamrolls ahead–in a totally intuitive fashion. The rock metaphor of obsidian, or rapidly cooled lava with a minimum of crystal growth, seemed most apt. I did permit myself one formal ploy: I adhere to groupings of “9” throughout: 9 beats per phrase, meters in 9, 9 measure subsections, etc. Thus the homage paid in the subtitle, “Apunkalypse in 9/8,” to one rock history’s great musical passages, The “Apocalypse in 9/8” by Genesis on the album-length song, “Supper’s Ready.”

Dr. Jekyll is a more careful and thoughtful dude, and “Crystal” is prepared with more architectural interest with regard to harmony, though it is only a few notches lighter in terms of its rock rhythmic feel and vitality. The harmonic motion, in a nutshell, changes keys at an abnormally fast rate (anywhere from a new key for each beat to a new key every two measures; or 1-4 seconds in real time). The keys follow a specific, irregular sequence, and that sequence involves a “spiral” or “staircase” progression: it goes around an entire cycle and ends up one step away, and continues forward through numerous levels in this way. I liken this, distantly, to John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” gone haywire, and with steps that are not giant so much as irregular: small, large, sideways, small again, ending up next to where you started rather than in the same spot. This explanation of the harmonic tile-work which interests me so much as a composer is meant to be forgotten by the listener (!), as it is merely a background to the animation of four saxophones in sunlight and in dialogue: duos, trios, solos, chorales.

It is my hope that listening to each movement informs the listening of the other.


The recording may be heard here. The performers took me up on the option to reverse the order of the movements, so it has a big finish. Therefore you will hear (at the link), “Crystal” followed by “Obisdian.”


Saxophone Quartet