camera obscura

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Instrumentation: oboe, violin, viola, cello
Duration: ca. 11′
Commission: New York Choreographic Institute
Premiere: 9 March 2007, New York City Ballet Studios (New York)

Download a (non-printable) PDF score of this work.

Mvt. II, performed live by Erin Gustafson and members of the Arnica Quartet:

Program Note:

Camera obscura, composed in the fall and winter of 2006-07, is my second commission from the New York Choreographic Institute, New York City Ballet’s training ground for choreographic talent. This time, the music was destined for the hands (and feet!) of choreographers Davide Bombana and Miao Zong, both of whom set the entirety of the score in independent creations.

The music itself, cast in three modestly proportioned movements, centers a great deal on mirror images, and was inspired by the medieval camera obscura, a completely enclosed chamber or box with a single pinhole in one wall, the light from which projects an image of the outside world on the opposite wall, though that image is upside-down. A number of these structures exist today as curiosities, but at the time the camera obscura was a useful tool for artists, who often traced the images onto paper.

The notion of a “darkened room” was the original inspiration for this piece. At the time of its composition, I had just become a new father, and was spending countless minutes and hours holding a particularly fussy baby in my arms, pacing through our small apartment with the lights off, in an attempt to induce sleep. It was during these intervals that I conceived of the structure of the work as a whole, namely a fast – slow – fast three-movement scaffolding, in which elements of the outer movements are shared. Meanwhile, the central movement itself contains a miniature slow – fast – slow design (an opposite “reflection” of the whole). The middle movement, too, is a kind a lullaby for my daughter who, in the middle of it all, is suddenly roused from sleep, cries out, and slowly slips back into restive somnolence.

As for the choice of instruments themselves (seeing as I was left to my own devices in this matter), I leapt at the chance to compose a work for my wife, oboist Erin Gustafson, and several of our colleagues, and was at every turn inspired by their brilliant playing.