Various program notes

Notes for Spirit Guide

Notes for In Memoriam

How Chamber Symphonies 2, 3, & 4 came to be written

On the Compositional Techniques Employed in Chamber Symphonies 2, 3, & 4:


Notes for Spirit Guide (2013):

Spirit Guide is a concerto for clarinet and orchestra, with an obbligato soprano soloist. The soloist plays clarinets in three sizes (Bb, A, and Eb sopranino).

This piece, a sort of requiem, begins at the moment of death. The clarinet represents the guide, a kind of Pied Piper, who helps the newly released spirit transform and evolve, and ultimately, move on. The clarinetist leads the spirit through several stages to its arrival at its final destination. In this work, the soprano (vocalising without a text) is the spirit, in search of the next phase of its existence. The piece is divided into 9 distinctly different sections (three linked movements of three parts each), so the ‘passage’ of the spirit moves successively to the conclusion.

Spirit Guide draws from the commonalities of various cultural traditions, and thus allows the listener to experience the piece in the context of their own culture and beliefs. It was commissioned by clarinetist Gary Dranch, and is dedicated to the memory of my parents.

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Notes for In Memoriam (2001):

In Memoriam was written in October, 2001, in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on 9/11/2001. At the time of the attacks, I was a professor of music at the Borough of Manhattan Community College/CUNY in downtown New York City, four blocks from the World Trade Center. At the college I conducted a college-community orchestra, the BMCC Downtown Symphony. I had recently moved from Brooklyn Heights, right across the East River from downtown Manhattan, to the Hudson Highlands, in upstate New York. During the years we lived in Brooklyn Heights, I often walked to work across the Brooklyn Bridge, admiring the wonderful panoply of the New York skyline, including the famous twin towers.

In Brooklyn we lived next door to a firehouse (Engine 205, Ladder 118), and after the initial shock of being awakened at all hours by the alarms, we came to enjoy and admire our courageous neighbors. They were there, alert and awake, at all hours, when we went to work in the morning or came home at night. They were cheerful, happy men, running to help if there was a heavy load, eager to chat about anything at all, and the best neighbors one could hope for. And they were the guys who run into a burning building when everyone else is running out.

On the morning of September 11th I drove from my home upstate to work, and then, as the news on the radio made clear what was happening, turned around and went home. I knew from my years in Brooklyn that this disaster was one that would call in trucks from all around, including my former neighbors. As the tragedy unfolded, I knew that they would be there, running into those towers. And in the aftermath, I found the names and pictures of those I’d chatted and joked with, on the long list of those lost that day.

So when my college reopened in October, and my community orchestra reassembled to rehearse for its first concert of the season (the first classical music concert in the downtown area after the tragedy), I felt the program had to accomplish two things: help us all return to normalcy as best we can, and recognize the losses we had all suffered. I’m not a fireman; I don’t run into burning buildings; I’m merely a composer. So I wrote this piece to help us all remember those we lost that day: In Memoriam.  

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Notes for:

Douglas Anderson Chamber Symphonies 2, 3, and 4

How Chamber Symphonies 2, 3, & 4 came to be written

These three works were written on request for particular ensembles which happened to be populated by colleagues and friends. They were familiar with my compositions, and each had a need at the time for a significant work in their repertoire. I get these commissions often enough to keep me busy, so as usual I asked them what kind of piece they wanted, what other works might be on a program with it, and other such questions to narrow down the options. In each of these cases this discussion led me toward the creation of a chamber symphony. I had complete confidence in writing for musicians I respected and admired, and I took great gleeful pleasure in creating music that would be challenging and entertaining for them to perform.

A composer’s task is to present their listeners with music that does the diverse things we humans have discovered that music can do: entertain, energize, relax, excite, depress, amuse, entrance, confuse, clarify, change moods, provide spiritual experiences, and so on, all the way to making the hair stand up on the back of your neck. Maybe not everything in every piece, but composers should have their goals clearly in mind as they ply their craft. These symphonies, as they go about their musical business, try to do some of those things. Touching on various issues and presenting various musical environments, they each lead the listener on an aural path of my design, and hopefully by the end through a sequence of musical experiences that concludes coherently and satisfyingly.

After having the opportunity as a student to conduct several orchestral symphonies by great composers, I also had the chance to study and conduct Schoenberg’s two Chamber Symphonies, and became interested in the different compositional possibilities that they introduced me to. As a result, one of my last student works before my doctoral dissertation was a chamber symphony (No. 1). I learned much from that experience, so when asked by these ensembles to write pieces for them, I chose to continue to explore the genre. Thus in 1989, 2001, and 2011 were born my Chamber Symphonies 2, 3, and 4.

I think, as others before me have, that the title ‘symphony’ implies a large work touching on a variety of musical issues, but with an underlying cohesion that pulls all the diverse ideas together by the end. So a chamber symphony, as I write it, does this. These works are symphonies because like their larger orchestral cousins, they are works that create varied and multifaceted musical worlds, but given the small number of instruments involved, with a necessarily limited timbral and harmonic palette. I have chosen in these pieces to use a plan of three connected movements, rather than the four separate movement plan of traditional orchestral symphonies; Schoenberg introduced me to the flexibility of chamber symphony form (as well as his profoundly adaptable serial system, see below), and this three movement sequence, with connecting cadenzas and an extended coda, provided me with the structural platform best suited to the exploration of the musical ideas involved.

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On the Compositional Techniques Employed in Chamber Symphonies 2, 3, & 4:

In these three particular works I have chosen to follow the old tradition of Western art music of having pitch events (melodies and harmonies) as the primary focus. The pitch materials for these melodies and harmonies are derived in each case from the pitch characteristics of the instruments themselves. These characteristics, which can range from the pitches of the open strings, high and low notes of the instruments, harmonics, etc., are combined and recombined to create serial (that is, ordered) rows, which in turn are then manipulated and modified in both quasi-tonal and traditional serial (a la Schoenberg, et al.) ways to bring out some of the variety of possibilities present.

One of the compositional methods I have explored since my student days (indeed, it was the subject of my doctoral dissertation) concerns the loosening of strict serial ordering, or ‘unordering’ as I call it, which allows the row to then function more like a scale does in traditional tonal music. But these ‘scales’, having been initially drawn from an ordered row (and usually presented as such at some point in the piece), can leave a residue in the listener’s mind of certain melodic or harmonic sequences, which then can be used as motives or chord progressions, becoming the building blocks of form.

Certain elements of the original rows are also used to create tonal centers, and the attraction, resistance, and resolution found in the great tonal music of the past can be thus recreated, but now using completely different (i.e., non-diatonic) musical resources and procedures. Sometimes these ‘scales’ (or pitch sets) are presented first in a completely unordered way, then gradually find their ordering as a traditional serial row; sometimes the ordering is presented first, then gradually discarded in favor of other kinds of (less ordered) pitch connections; and so on into the great variety of possibilities.

The durational aspect of the sounds (rhythm and tempo) are usually used here to enhance and develop the pitch ideas, and timbre and dynamics then become the amplifiers of all these ideas, in search of the intellectual, emotional and physical experiences mentioned above.

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