25th Anniversary of “The Depth”

25 years ago tonight, Feb. 17, 1993, I had my first orchestral performance. It was by the University of Michigan orchestra, under a student conductor named Claire Levacher, and it was of my master’s thesis composition entitled The Depth. It was also the only performance ever of that work, the largest instrumentation of an orchestral work of mine, and the largest percussion section I ever used (something of a specialty of mine), that ever got performed. I could go on about the many “firsts” and “onlys” of this magical piece and experience of 25 years ago, but no need. Let me instead talk about the why The Depth, then as now, is true. True to myself, true to my passions, and, I’ll venture, true to my time.

First let me say that I knew then, was reminded and in the ensuing years until the piece faded out of memory, that the title could have been better. Some thought I was going for some New Agey, “Weather Report” vibe, some thought I was writing about the ocean (and they heard fishes swimming about in the music). What I intended by the title was something utterly simple, sonically rich, full of portent, brief and dense – in communion with what I was after with the music. I still think it is that, have never considered changing it, and, alas, have lived with the consequences of its not being easily explainable or particularly descriptive.

Here are the essential aspects of music that I dealt directly with in The Depth: 1) using simple, banal, irreducible musical building blocks to build complex structures (shall we call it the Lego approach?), 2) sonic (timbral) richness and complexity (lots of percussion, extended techniques, new sounds), 3) free improvisation combined with strictness of form (like, imagine being told you can say anything that comes to mind, but for 12.4 seconds – you get the idea), 4) form determined by an unrelated, random other artifact (call it palimpsest form – you should get to know the term “palimpsest” before going on).

I have always a special interest in musical form. Musical form is unique in all of the arts. Music is Form as much as it is anything else. Things follow one another. Listeners can’t go back in time while listening – they must take it as it comes. This is a big deal. The majority of music-listening is to music where the expectations are given before the experience. A song will have verses and refrains, in jazz and rock there will be solos in the middle, and Classical music has a litany of forms that music students study and that performers explain to their audience in program notes and pre-concert lectures ad infinitum so that their audience can get in on the “game” of the Sonata, the Rondo, the Minuet, the Theme and Variations. Such explanations were not needed in their own day, mind us.

Listeners have widely varying tolerances for deviations in their favorite forms. I think I am not alone by being a composer that vacillates between “couldn’t care less” about people’s appetite for musical surprises or innovation, and embracing standard forms fully and wanting/needing their expectations and the people who love them. The Depth is one of my experiments in form; namely with the idea (another biggie of mine) that there are endless other meaningful forms possibilities that are not associated with Classical music history, if what we mean by form is an expectation of things like duration, rate of change, narrative feeling, or simply a mold of any kind. Even as recently as 2016 I dug further into this concept in my Melancolia. And so I used for the form of The Depth (lift the curtain, please!): a vinyl rock album side. [Let me reiterate, this was 1991, not hipster-vinyl-resurgence 2015!] But I didn’t stop at the generalized rock album side, I took it a step further and used, very specifically, Side One of Pink Floyd’s The Wall as my palimpsest. [I would later return in greater detail to the palimpsest form in 2004-2011 in my Nassau, which uses the CD of the same name by The Sea and Cake, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Homer’s Odyssey, as triple palimpsests, one musical and two textual.]

There is something of a dual palimpsest in The Depth, too. I needed an orchestration to mount this musical journey aboard. For that I chose the instrumentation of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. It was an orchestral work, after all. It had to be to get my Masters degree.

Two additional reasons for choosing both The Wall and Mahler’s Ninth: 1) both are complex structures built upon banal, archetypal pitch material. Granted, Mahler is more complex than Pink Floyd, but bear with me: The Wall begins (and frequently returns to) E-F#-G. Mahler’s Ninth is fascinated with a pentatonic cell (or B-D-E in the beginning, F#-A-B other places, etc. – known to us music nerds as 0-3-5, a description of the half-step measurements involved), conveniently rock-music-like, easily matched to my own language, and highly “archetypal.” 2) both represent ends of (favorite and related) musical eras to me: The Wall as end of the progressive rock concept album, and Mahler 9th as the end of the Romantic era in music. Both were composed by “megalomaniacal” musical “geniuses” – and so they seem to have similar finalities of an attitude. In the early 90’s I was personally concerned with the idea of giving up the juvenile notion of being a rock star. The Depth became one comment, for me, on “ends” of overblown notions, if you will.

Here I will stop writing and post the music. You can continue reading two more program notes I wrote for The Depth over the years, which will repeat some of what I have said above, and give some additional technical clues about the work.

From hausemusic.com:

The tone poem, The Depth uses the form of album Side One of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the instrumentation of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, and musical fragments from both, to create an abstract wash where the worlds of Rock and Romantic Classical music come together. In fact, it is designed to open a program of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. To take it even further, one should hang out at home and listen to the entire album The Wall and then catch a cab to the concert hall to hear 1. The Depth followed by 2. Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.

In five sections, the work begins with “The Show,” which is a refraction of “One of These Days,” the stunning opening to The Wall. It moves into a shadow of a waltz, “Skating,” which echoes “The Thin Ice” from the Floyd. This is the most complex music of the work, utilizing metric modulation and aleatoric passages while working and reworking tiny rhythmic and pitch fragments (culled from the Mahler as well as the Floyd). It reaches a climax, quoting the end of the climactic David Gilmore guitar solo in some very high French horn writing, and explodes. An oscillating D-C pedal point is left in the floe, and an original chorale begins. This mellower moment, entitled “Just a Memory,” is reminiscent of “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1.” The fourth section (Allegro Moderato – Propulsion Variation), is an accelerated variation on material primarily drawn from the immediately preceding section. Being quicker in tempo, it calls to mind the faster corresponding section on the album side, “The Happiest Days of Our Lives” and “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2.” There is a transition to the final, beautiful section “Cozy and Warm,” echoing “Mother,” the final song on side one of The Wall.

Original program note, revised over the years:

The Depth is an eleven-minute large orchestral work which appropriates elements from Side One of the rock album, The Wall (1979), by Pink Floyd, and from the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. The result is a colorful piece of abstract narrative music in the shape of a tone poem.

For the form, I followed the basic dramatic contour of the rock album side, condensing the peaks and valleys of The Wall’s first twenty minutes into ten. In order to help make audible this association, I proceeded to “sample” simple tonal and rhythmic fragments from the excerpt, some of which are readily available to the listener — most obvious is the opening three notes (E – F#- G). These become important cellular material for The Depth, as they do for the complete Pink Floyd album. Isolated words from the lyrics of corresponding songs were placed in the score, even during its composition, providing an angle on the “chance” emotional content of the piece: “The Show”, “Skating”, “Just a Memory”, Variation, and “Cozy and Warm” signify the sections.

The piece is scored for the near-exact instrumentation of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, also a pre-compositional decision, notably employing quadruple woodwinds, and including three chime notes from that work (F# – A – B). These pitches supplement the tonal material from The Wall. Also in the percussion section is the Mahlerian bass drum/ruthe (wooden switch) combination, which musically supplies the simple waltz/Ländler rhythm, “oom-pah-pah”, in turn supplying a simple rhythmic counterpart to the tonal cells.

Technically, there are in fact two long-term principles in use: 1) a tonal plan, and 2) a general move from dissonance to consonance. The latter is best exemplified by the journey from percussive, timbral passages to smooth, chorale-like music. In the first sections of the piece, much of the orchestral music is an extension of complex percussion colors. A transformation through various cluster and polytonal harmonies and improvisatory fields culminates in a percussion-free, highly consonant environment at the end. Such is also the case in Mahler’s Ninth and The Wall, Side One.

While the borrowed fragments are so common as to be banal, they nonetheless invited more indirect extramusical images, which compounded rapidly as if in a roomful of mirrors. The title addresses this “saturation” of influences. The exploration of this phenomenon of intuition and appropriation becoming one can be seen as the main experiment of The Depth.

Leave a Reply