Rock Formations

1. Obsidian (performed by the Seyon Quartet)
2. Crystal (performed by the Capitol Quartet)


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 an 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, and is 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 the harmonic progression of 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 harmonic tile-work which interests me 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. Frequently the order of the movements is reversed.


Saxophone Quartet


Right here