S Sensation Something

Program notes

S Sensation Something is a kind of private diary, a network of allusions and references to musical, theoretical, and mathematical ideas that have intrigued me over the past few years. The first third of the piece is a canon that evokes well-known progressions from popular music, implicitly suggesting that we can learn to hear the structure latent in those original sources. The last third builds on a well-known association between pitch and rhythm, with each chord or scale exemplifying the groove it represents. Sprinkled in between are various other allusions, both cryptic and overt, including a slow passage based on the sound of a laser printer, a rhythmic joke about quintuplets and salsa music, and the impossible project of approximating one collection of notes with another.

What is the listener supposed to take from all this? That is the question implicit in the title, which refers to the philosopher Wittenstein's famous (and obscure) meditation on language, communication, and privacy. I’ll be perfectly content if most listeners ignore my associations, experiencing the music as an exotic trip through a succession of psychedelic musical spaces. But I am also happy to welcome a smaller and more dedicated group into my private compositional workshop, inviting them to examine in detail the more esoteric thinking behind the notes.

In this sense, I think the piece summarizes my feelings about the relation between theory (or mathematics) and music. Personally, I am not so interested in pieces that wear their conceptual motivations on their sleeves, like a theorem expressed in notes; instead I like my theory buried and subterranean, a rigorous starting point that has been polished, defaced, rethought, and embellished to the point where it is only occasionally apparent, like a fossilized skeleton protruding through the surface of the earth.

Is it worthwhile? Are these conceptual structures just a kind of trick I play to create the illusion that my notes have some extra meaning? In the end, that's close to the question I want to pose. This piece, like much classical music, is about the sense of a meaningfulness that we can only partially grasp--the poetry of an impossible language always just beyond us.

Instrumentation: String quartet and piano