“Symphony” tends to carry the connotation of a large-scale, multi-movement work for a full orchestra. With his series of Chamber Symphonies–works for ensembles as small as three pieces—Douglas Anderson reimagines the symphony as an intimate work based on interrelated knots of pitches and harmonies.
Anderson, a composer and conductor based in New York, studied composition with Mario Davidovksy, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Chou Wen-chung and Charles Wuorinen, among others. His body of work encompasses electronic music, acoustic chamber music, orchestral works and vocal compositions as well as occasional pieces for radio, film and stage. With these three chamber symphonies, he explores polyphonic work for small acoustic ensembles.
As with more conventional symphonies, the three chamber works presented here are made up of multiple parts, often—in the cases of the Second and Third–divided by a cadenza for a soloist. The focus of all three pieces is on melody, as structured by Anderson’s elastic adaptation of serial technique. Anderson constructs pitch sets to use as basic melodic material, but modifies them as needed in order to maximize their melodic effect. At many points during these works, for example, he seems to take subsets of a basic twelve-tone set and arrange them to create a quasi-tonal sound. Consequently, all three works display an essential melodic coherence, the salient features of the rows remaining recognizable throughout the repetitions and variations Anderson has them undergo. One side effect of this transparency is a remarkable clarity of line, which is also facilitated by the small sizes of the ensembles—two trios and a quartet.
Rightly or wrongly, serial composition has long had an unenviable reputation for being opaque and resistant to the untrained listener’s comprehension. But as these three works show, the creative application of serial method can produce music that, no less than tonal music, reveals its structures on its surfaces. Beyond their intrinsic value, Anderson’s chamber symphonies demonstrate the continued relevance of serial and serial-based composition for the creation of profoundly melodic, polyphonic works.