Typecase Treasury

Program notes

When I was young, my parents found a small table made from a printer's typecase, divided into a hundred little compartments meant to contain metal casts of the letters of the alphabet. Each of the little compartments had been filled with a unique mineralogical treasure—a strange crystal, a piece of iron pyrite, a shark’s tooth, or a fossilized trilobyte. I used to stare and stare at this cabinet of wonders, amazed by the sheer variety of its contents, and overjoyed that we had an actual shark’s tooth in our very own house.

In thinking about how to capture these memories, I hit on the idea of a collection of little movements, each complete in itself, but producing a sense of form through their juxtaposition. Most of the seven movements are just about two minutes long, just enough to make a relatively coherent artistic statement, but not long enough to sustain much development. I tried to weave the movements together in a way that created a larger trajectory of energy and mood and texture, building structure in an intuitive and associative way, without much recourse to explicit recapitulation.

Where We Begin is influenced by the pulsing rhythms of minimalism, as filtered through early Stravinsky. The group plays together in an almost-constant rhythm, moving through harmonies that variously echo jazz, blues, and twentieth-century modernism.

Hurdy Gurdy is a frenetic, wheezing machine, in which a bluesy melody does its best to stay afloat above the swirling chromatic accompaniment. It is supposed to be lighthearted and somewhat humorous.

Crackpot Hymnal is lurching, loosely synchronized, and improvisatory, combining avant-garde rhythms with gushing Romantic harmonies. It is as if the players were all improvising, yet somehow managing to stay together harmonically. As the title suggests, the music is supposed to be elegaic and slightly demented, sincere and yet also a little disturbing.

This One Was Supposed to Be Atonal began with a series of dense chromatic clusters and was supposed to continue in a more avant-garde direction. Instead, it acquired a goofy jazz solo.

Russian Metal reflects my sense that there is an affinity between Russian modernism and heavy metal, both of which favor a darkened ("more minor than minor") harmonic palette. Unable to shake the image of Shostakovich orchestrating Black Sabbath, I decided to exorcise my demons by writing them down.

Intermezzo features a simple melody in high harmonics, shared by the two violins. The harmony is sweet-and-sour, pretty but a little polytonal. I originally wrote a longer and more complicated movement in its place, but eventually decided that less was more.

Anthem is the longest movement, a kind of Schubertian rock-out finale that returns to some of the harmonic ideas of the opening.

Typecase Treasury was commissioned by the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, directed by my friend David Yang.

Instrumentation: String Quintet

Performers: The Amernet Quartet with Kevin Mayner