Contained (within): Commentary on a Commentary

an essay on Chemins Perturbé (2021) for flute, clarinet, guitar, mezzo-soprano, violin, and viola

Watch Nebula Ensemble premiere the ensemble version here!

Chemins Perturbé contains two compositions in one. It starts with a work for solo violin, “Punctuated Movements,” upon which is composed Chemins Perturbé, a work of instrumental commentary in which the entire violin solo is just one of six ensemble parts. Both works are fully contained compositions, but the latter compliments, extends, and amplifies the solo piece, so that they may be performed separately or as a two-movement work: first the solo, then the ensemble.

“Punctuated Movements” was composed while reflecting on the musical relevance of Rudolph Laban’s movement analysis, specifically the “effort actions,” a system which attempts to describe physical movements on three continua: time (sudden-sustained); space (direct-indirect); and weight: (heavy-light)[1]. The solo (originally conceived for viola) began as a preliminary sketch for choreographer Kathryn Alter; a collaborative exploration as we worked towards a larger project. I soon recognized “points for potential growth” in the piece that inspired me to compose Chemins Perturbé in the manner of Luciano Berio’s “musical commentary,” which David Osmond-Smith defines as “the use, as a compositional starting-point, of a complete and self-sufficient musical work”[2]. In particular, the title and spirit of Chemins Perturbé is drawn from Berio’s Chemins series, which he based on the solo Sequenze, and as such should be understood as a (newly) self-contained work in which all ensemble members have an equal role to play.

Performing the compositions together presents the listener with the unique opportunity of hearing a complete musical work (“Punctuated Movements”) in a completely new context, an experience which blurs the line between a provisional and final piece. As Osmond-Smith writes, a work of musical commentary “question[s] the finality and internal inevitability so readily attributed to the individual work… It chooses rather to emphasize the degree to which a ‘finished’ piece may be so only by virtue of a partly arbitrary set of decisions on the composer’s part, for whose reversal the Chemins series allows ample opportunity.”[3] Even though “Punctuated Movements” is complete (and remains so), it becomes provisional when Chemins Perturbé is heard; a self-contained work is revealed to contain within it the latent potential for completely new works. By recognizing these sounds as simultaneously finished and provisional, I hope this piece encourages a liminal mode of listening that finds meaning from both statuses.

[1] “NYU Movement Research Group.” Accessed January 28, 2022.

[2] Osmond-Smith, David. “Berio and the Art of Commentary.” The Musical Times 116, no. 1592 (1975): 871–72.

[3] Ibid., 872


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