The Grand Pause and Reprise

“The grand pause . . . a brief, silent pause, during which time is not counted.” (courtesy of Music Terms at

image of Grand Pause symbolIn music, this symbol, a fermata over a rest, indicates the “grand pause” – a break in the forward motion of music. The beginning of this semester has created an unexpected backlog of work, so I am inserting a “grand pause” in my blog for a brief pause. Once I have “caught my breath” in that quiet time, I will return with some new music and images to share.

In the hiatus, I offer links to a few favorite posts from when I first began this blog, a reprise of past reflections on music and gardening.

Autumn Minimalism: the Constancy of Change has a video of life and movement in my garden set to orchestral music that I composed a few years ago (Sketches of America).

Anatomy of a Thunderstorm is a first person experience of recording the sound of a thunderstorm.  This is close to my heart, as I continue working on a piece, August in Penn’s Woods, in which recordings of the sounds of nature lie at the core of the music.  An edited soundtrack of the thunderstorm recorded that day is included in this post, a recording that will become part of the new piece in progress. May rain come to all who need it.

Reprise ~ in music . . . the repetition or reiteration of the opening material later in a composition (Wikipedia)

Sketches of America

Last night, the Washington Symphony Orchestra performed “Sketches of America” as part of their “Picture This” concert. Under the creative and enthusiastic guidance of Music Director Yugo Ikach, the WSO is a community orchestra, which means that the majority of the musicians are volunteers and participate for the love of performing music.  “Sketches” was originally written for and performed by the Duquesne University Symphony Orchestra featuring professional soloists, including reknowned jazz trumpeter Sean Jones.  I wanted to hear how the WSO would perform the piece, with very little input from me other than the written score.  Would it work?

The title “Sketches of America” was a play on Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain”  which itself was a jazz interpretation of Rodriguez’s Adagio movement of the “Concierto de Aranjuez.” I was commissioned to create an orchestral piece that would include a section for jazz improvisation by the soloists, a somewhat daunting task in orchestral writing.  My own goals were more complex – I wanted to draw on American musical traditions as well as musically reflect on my love of the American landscape.  The strains of “America the Beautiful” kept running through my head as I was composing, and a few fragments of the melody crept into the piece as well.

The first section of the piece, “the painted desert” draws on minimalism, a uniquely American approach to “concert music” typified by composers like Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and John Adams. Inspired by a long November drive through the deserts of Arizona, a panorama of grey skies, yellow flowering shrubs, and tumbleweed, I remember a vast quiet world marked by the rhythmic turn of the car wheels. (The full version of “The Painted Desert” was used in my “Autumn Minimalism” post, in the video soundtrack)

That repeating rhythm segues into the syncopation of “a joyful blues” – another American musical tradition in the form of jazz and blues. Not content to write the traditional twelve bar blues in 4/4, I constructed a thirteen bar blues in 5/8 meter over which the solo trumpet and trombone improvise to the fast rhythms of  the pizzicato strings. Those seemingly odd numbers are part of the Fibonacci number sequence, something that occurs throughout the natural world in the form of flowers, seashells, and trees

“Sketches” closes with a chorale style section based on “Clay”, a song that I wrote in response to my efforts to dig and amend the clay in my garden. One of the lyrics, “. . . the solid ground beneath our feet” became a metaphor for the natural beauty of our vast country and the challenge of keeping it “America the beautiful.”

The WSO performance?  Wonderful. The piece worked, the orchestra sounded great, the soloists rose to the challenge, and the effect was just as I had intended.  That moment of hushed silence in the hall at the close of the piece, the sign that the audience was listening and involved, seemed more important than the applause that followed. Those of you who are composers know that this does not always happen!  As my husband and colleague remarked later, “the piece played itself.”  It was an unexpectedly moving experience and I was touched to the heart, and at that moment, I was very glad indeed to be a composer.

(The recordings above were taken from the premier of “Sketches of America” performed by Sean Jones, trumpet, and Ed Kocher, trombone, with the Duquesne University Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sidney Harth.)

All music and text in “Sketches of America” ©2011 Lynn Emberg Purse, All Rights Reserved

Autumn Minimalism: the Constancy of Change

The garden now reminds me of a symphony orchestra tuning for a concert. Fall has not quite arrived in its full power and majesty, but the time will soon arrive for its long unfolding. Allen Lacy, “The Garden in Autumn”

Minimalism has been on my mind all week. My student ensemble tackled Terry Riley‘s “In C” on Wednesday, the next day a composition student declared his intention to write a piece in the “minimalist style” and I found myself explaining the intersection of multiple rhythmic patterns and the sense of constant motion that emerges in this approach. Meanwhile, I’m preparing for a visit from friend and minimalist composer David Borden as well as another performance of my orchestral piece, Sketches of America, which includes minimalist elements. So, perhaps it is not surprising that walking through the garden this morning, coffee firmly in hand, I noticed the constant motion of the garden as well.

The floral fireworks of July are a distant memory; September is all about motion. Tall slender stems of late blooming annuals and ornamental grasses lend the look of a meadow in the garden beds, moving in the lightest breeze and shimmering in the sunlight. Bees and butterflies, hungry for a late season feast before winter, bow and bob from flower to flower, layering the garden with another repetition of rhythm. Cicadas haven’t ceased their buzzing ostinato from the night before; the drone is punctuated by a pair of cardinals warning of a wandering cat; once danger is past, melodious bird song resumes. A hummingbird swoops by me, its wings sounding like the roll of a snare drum; we’re both surprised by the encounter, and he cheeps and flies away in search of a more private feeding ground.

I meander to the upper deck, where I can see the garden in its entirety while gently rocking in a chair, my own contribution to the motion of the garden. Even twenty feet above ground, bees and wasps find the plumes of Agastache ‘Apricot Sprite’ that I planted in pots on the deck; they hustle in and out of the long wands of flowers, triggering a pungent scent of licorice in the warm humid air. I’m amused by my feelings of peace and stillness in the garden, when in actuality it is a place constantly in flux, moving and changing in both sight and sound. Minimalistic music, with its floating patterns hiding surprise within repetition, has always seemed to me to be both constantly moving and yet utterly still at the same time. This morning,the garden seems to embody that same quality, a constancy of change.

All text and video in “Autumn MInimalism: the Constancy of Change” ©2011 Lynn Emberg Purse, All Rights Reserved