I have always been drawn to the sound of liturgical music—its simplicity, scale, and the communal, consolatory aspect of it. The message being delivered, for me, is secondary to the method of delivery. With this in mind, I composed Land Mass from beginning to end with no words at all. I wanted to fuse the chorus’s parts to the structure of the music itself, rather than to that of a text, hoping to carry the piece through its half-hour duration with a sense of purpose and inevitability.
Only after I’d composed this music did I let what I’d written guide me to choose texts concerned with oceans, tectonic plates, natural disasters, and the motions of interstellar objects. Thinking and writing about these geographic, geologic “masses” feels pressingly urgent, but Land Mass is not a piece with a particular agenda or message. Instead it’s a collection of histories, curiosities, facts, fictions, juxtapositions, and suggestions, hoping to extend that sense of communal consolation to listeners and performers alike.
Land Mass is built from three roughly equal-size parts, each with its own topic and mood. The piece begins simply, with an invented folk-like melody unspooling over a mechanistic 16th-note ostinato. In rhythmic unison, as if learning by rote, the chorus lists facts about the natural world—excerpts from the Orbis Pictus, one of the first widely-used textbooks. Syncopated pulses in the winds and percussion begin to punctuate these horizontal lines as the music expands in register, volume, and harmonic complexity. The movement concludes with a line of text that takes on the ominous weight of a prophecy: “[even in the highest mountains and landlocked countries] we find the products of the sea enclosed in hardest marble.” The movement fades away with distant brass calls, the 16th-note ostinato still growling away in the basses.
The second movement sets a legend (explanatory text) from Gerardus Mercator’s 1569 world map. I chose this legend because of its fantastical imagery and wild inaccuracy; it asserts that the North Pole conceals a giant, magnetic mountain, which pulls the wind and ocean currents toward it from all directions, forming an inescapable vortex. The movement opens with a series of deliberately-paced, almost ritualistic episodes, which eventually build momentum into a swirling, vigorous middle section. In contrast to the choral writing in the first movement, here it becomes densely contrapuntal, each voice moving in independent eddies and cascades. It struck me in setting this text that a fictive map might be preferable to no map at all. Though it fails to serve a concrete function, it still provides a measure of consolation—if we can find ourselves on it.
The third movement is the most narrative, even as its musical substrate is highly procedural. It sets Pliny the Younger’s letter describing his uncle’s experiences during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. At first, the music acts as a foil to the drama of the text, as if it were being remembered rather than experienced. Slow, arching melodies emerge from a cyclic series of chords, or chaconne. This chaconne is atypical in that it modulates down by a half-step with each repetition. As the music grows progressively lower and darker, it finally explodes, fracturing the foundations of the chaconne from within. This builds to a frantic dialogue between the Plinys, Younger and Elder, with scenes of pandemonium interrupted by the famous humanist axiom “God is man helping man.” But the last, emphatic choral injunction is echoed only weakly by a stunned, broken orchestra; it remains to be seen whether man will, in the end, help man.
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87 pages, 11x17 format. Includes full score only. Parts are available for rental; please email firstname.lastname@example.org for a quote.
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