fantasy on a falling line

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Instrumentation: two pianos
Duration: ca. 18′
Commission: 88squared (Jeffrey Savage & Karen Hsiao Savage)
Premiere: 5 April 2017, Fordham Univ. (New York)

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

Prelude, recorded by 88squared:

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Fantasy on a Falling Line began as a request from two dear colleagues whom I had met during school days at Juilliard, Jeffrey Savage and Karen Hsiao Savage. The husband-and-wife piano duo had planned a concert of two-piano repertoire at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in early 2009. In fact, the duo, who had since Juilliard ended up as faculty at Washington State University, asked for the piece in the summer of 2008, and I began it then with the high hopes of hastily composing a work of around eight minutes.

However, life and its obligations soon overtook those high hopes, and instead of delivering the promised composition, I ended up reconfiguring an older work, Pieces of Reich, adapting the original ballet score for concert performance, with the promise that the new piece would be forthcoming. (The Savages went on to record Pieces of Reich for their debut CD.) With all good intentions, I returned to Fantasy on a Falling Line in 2009. The piece had started to take on proportions of a much larger work—the current composition lasts around seventeen minutes—and other opportunities began to present themselves, namely the commissions for An Inflorescence and my Second String Quartet. That, plus the birth of my second child, meant that Fantasy on a Falling Line would take some time to complete.

That being said, what took me so long? It is difficult to answer except in the most vague way. I sensed that this piece represented a turning point for me, of sorts, and there was also the notion that, for whatever reason, it needed a long time to grow—six years, in fact! In the end, Fantasy on a Falling Line might not bear any obvious marks that distinguish it as different from its immediate predecessors, but the process of making it was a new one for its creator in that the whole of the composition is based on a single set of related intervals and pitches. This relationship is not bound to any one external “method” or “system,” but rather grows out of the internal workings of the music itself.

Cast as a single large arch of music, the piece is broken into seven sections bearing the headings:

Prelude – Movement I – Interlude I – Movement II – Interlude II – Movement III – Postlude

The weight of the work lies in the three movements, though the genesis of the piece stems from the opening Prelude. The cascading, interlocking sixths that commence the music, and their subsequent interaction with the jarring wide-spaced chords that interrupt them, form the basis for nearly every note that follows. In general, the gentle opening soon develops into a raucous, churning Allegro (Movement I) that in turn gives way to a delicate and lyrical slow movement (Movement II). Movement III returns to the frenetic pace of Movement I, with the two interludes acting as the connective tissue that binds all this activity together. Ultimately, the opening Prelude-music returns in the final moments of the piece, though now the high falling line (to which the title refers) is set deep in the pianos’ lowest octaves, and has become a dark moaning ascent.

Fantasy on a Falling Line is lovingly dedicated to Jeff and Karen, whose patience and unwavering faith in this work’s rough entry into being—not to mention their colossal talent—was at all times the most potent inspiration a composer could ever hope for. The final page of the score bears an inscription: a brief stanza from Robert Desnos’s Saisons (1942). The lines have no significance within the music itself, but are rather a message to the dedicatees which reflects life’s passage, the six too-short summers spent working on their piece, and the general sense of time’s “never wearying stream.”