Programme Notes – Elements (1997-1998)

Suite for Percussion and Wind Ensemble

EARTH – Allegro Moderato
WATER – Andante
FIRE – Prestissimo
AIR – Largo – Presto

The origins of the four elements: Earth, Water, Fire and Air ate back to the Greek philosopher, physician, poet and high priest Empedocles (c. 490 – 430 BC) who allegedly committed suicide by throwing himself into the crater of Mount Etna . Empedocles analysed the universe into the four elements, fire being the essence of life, the other elements forming the basis of matter. His system is founded on the theory together with another, which supposes two opposing forces, Love and Strife. The world began when the elements, which had been torn asunder by the forces of Strife, tended to come together again under the influence of Love. The different species arose out of the different mingling of the elements.

In this work I have drawn upon motifs from that great elemental epic: Wagner’s ‘Der Ring Des Nibelungen.’ While there is little direct quotation I have been inspired by the extraordinarily forward-looking harmony and the magical sense of atmosphere found in Wagner’s great masterpiece. The first movement: Earth begins with ominous rumblings for the soloist, which soon erupt into a mood of intense fury. The harmonic language is harsh in the extreme, the rhythms are angular, and the texture is dominated by drums of various timbres, with an occasional grotesque interjection from the xylophone. At the climax of the movement any sense of order is lost and the players in the band play independently of the conductor, over whom the soloist improvises on octobans, (a particularly cruel and piercing-sounding set of drums.) Things eventually calm down, and the second movement: Water begins with an extended saxophone duet over murky chromatic semiquavers for wind and brass. Through this movement I have attempted to guide the emotional direction from Strife towards Love. The dominant instrument here is the marimba, which plays rhapsodically around fluid woodwind solos, like a deep-sea diver travelling amongst various strange tropical fish. Twice in the course of the movement a brass chorale (with melodic contours from Wagner’s Rhine maidens) cuts through the texture, leading in its second appearance to the tonal centre of A major before the saxophones are heard once again.

With the sound of a match being struck Fire steals in, at first with a flicker, but soon gathering momentum and becoming wild and uncontrolled. The soloist switches from marimba to various metal percussion instruments, including thunder sheet and junk metal. At the climax of the movement a joyful bell-like theme is heard in the horns before the fire quickly burns itself out. The final movement Air expands this bell-like melody in music that is very slow, very quiet and very simple with silence an important factor. The dominant sound now is the cool, calm timbre of the vibraphone, and a great peace descends upon the scene. There is a final statement of the bell-like theme in the full band before the piece evaporates in a quicksilver A major codetta.