Orpheus Variations, a recent work for cello and seven wind instruments by Alvin Lucier, is a thirty-one minute piece based on a single seven-note chord. This would seem to be extremely limited material for a work of this length—and it is—but by exploring the timbral and resonant effects of distributing these seven notes across winds and cello, Lucier develops in detail a rich sound world that manages to be both hypnotic and kaleidoscopic at the same time.
Lucier has said that he thinks of this collection of tones primarily as a sonority, by which he seems to mean he imagines them as they would actually be played with the specific timbres and registers appropriate to the instruments for which they’re scored. It is a concern with the concrete qualities of sounds as they are actually played. He realizes this in the way he orchestrates his pitch set: throughout the piece he has the seven notes circulate through the ensemble in a constantly shifting pattern of arpeggiated long tones played with and against various instrumental combinations. Although the piece is long, its recurrent cycling of this closed set of material in changing registers and voices defeats any mundane sense of duration the listener may have; in my own repeated listenings the piece has seemed considerably shorter than its run time as measured by the clock.
The chord that forms the basis for the Orpheus Variations appears in Stravinsky’s score for the first part of George Balanchine’s 1947 ballet Orpheus. A product of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period, the music for the ballet was inspired by Monteverdi. The chord itself is highly unstable, a quality Lucier dramatizes by breaking it down into consonant and dissonant subsets that overlap, clash, float and dissolve at an unhurried pace.
Orpheus Variations was composed for cellist Charles Curtis and was premiered by Curtis in August, 2015 at the Ostrava days; here, it’s performed by Curtis with members of the SEM Ensemble.