Distortions (2008)

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Commissioned by Eric Hewitt and the Boston Conservatory Wind Ensemble, premiered on November 21, 2008 in at the Boston College HS Bulger Auditorium, Boston, MA.


Distortions, written for and dedicated to Eric Hewitt and the Boston Conservatory Wind Ensemble, was composed in the late summer and fall of 2008. It is scored for a standard symphonic wind ensemble with an expanded compliment of seven clarinets. The concept of distortion provides the foundation for virtually every aspect of the work, and it is understood and applied both in a specific sense (a form of signal processing or degredation) and for its broader meaning (the alteration or corruption of information.) 

Although I was initially intrigued by the imitation of electronic distortion with acoustic instruments, I was much more interested in extending and abstracting the concept of distortion to deeper compositional issues. The preliminary challenge for me was to establish and articulate a clearly identifiable reference “object” or source which could then be subjected to various types of distorting processes. In the end, I relied on two such objects which interact with each other in manifold ways throughout the piece. 

The first and more basic of the two is a simple, symmetrical dynamic arc (p< f >p) which, as a shape, is subsequently generalized to apply to other musical domains such as density, tempo, pitch contour, and so on. The resultant musical events are in turn “distorted” through a number of processes that are analogous to certain types audio signal processing. 

The second source subject is both more and less simple – a singular sonority combined with a wealth of melodic material. Specifically, it is a series of quotations from Schoenberg’s orchestral song Op. 22, no. 1 (“Seraphita”). Perhaps the most immediately outstanding characteristic of this song is Schoeberg’s use of six clarinets often playing in unison throughout the course of the piece. The song opens with a haunting melody played by clarinets “á 6”, and this most striking sonority becomes in itself something of a refrain by the work’s end. I have long been fascinated by the effect that Schoenberg achieves with this unusual scoring, and I decided to adopt both his instrumental and melodic ideas for my own purposes here. Distortions presents quotes from Seraphita’s clarinets in near-faithful but re-contextualized iterations, and then subjects them to similar processes as those mentioned above. However, it is here that the wider meaning of distortion comes into play, as Schoenberg’s original material becomes jumbled, misquoted, rearranged and ultimately reconstituted in an unrecognizable form at the work’s conclusion.