On the Recent Music of Robert Erickson


John MacKay


What will be referred to as Robert Erickson's "recent music" first emerged in the mid 1970's in a number of pieces of striking originality (1) apparently refracting elements of his earlier evolution into a richly evocative and highly personal musical language. Previous works of the sixties and early seventies were written in an almost restless variety of idioms and often accompanied by substantial research on issues of instrument design, extended playing techniques, instrumental timbre, world music etc. Many of the recent pieces however have arisen as commissions for traditional concert idioms and have been written in an almost unbroken outpouring, often with uncanny and provocative similarities of materials and design. The purpose in this essay will be to glimpse the nature of the language of these pieces by isolating recurrent ideas, and formal relationships with some speculative appreciation on their significance in Erickson's creative enterprise.


Drones, Hockets, and Arabesques

The central currents of Erickson's recent music can be seen in two works for accompanied violin solo. Summer Music for violin and tape, combines Erickson's fascination for tuned environmental drones with a very spontaneous, lyrical cantillation and arabesque. The filtered bubbling of a country stream serves as a type of randomized tabla accompaniment which shifts subtly to a number of tonal centers before reverting to its central C natural. The violin figurations vary from serene and breathy sustained tones to agitated dissonant figurations with long fervent glissandi. This idiom is further pursued in a subtle drama between violin solo and chamber orchestra in Garden and the central elements of these works, the drone and arabesque, persist in the solo pieces Quoq and Kryl and in the ensemble piece Night Music where they are integrated with Erickson's colorful palette of extended instrumental techniques. The latter work, in its image of a Mahlerian "oceanic night" seems also to have been a poetic turning point - its crystalline balance of the drone, the arabesque and elements of consonant polyphony being reflected in many subsequent pieces.

A number of factors contribute to the varying characters of Erickson's orchestral drones. Their particular orchestrations, their particular "modalities" and their roles in the scenarios of individual pieces all have much to do with the details of their form and organization of sound color. The drone at the beginning of East of the Beach is summarized in Figure 1 with a short excerpt from the score reproduced in Example 1.


Example 1: East of the Beach mm.28 - 36

Copyright (1989) by Smith Publications, 2617, Gwyndale Ave. Baltimore, MD 21207 USA. Used by permission.

Figure 1: Reduction of opening drone of East of the Beach mm.1 - 60

It is a drone purely on E naturals and its fusions and fluctuations of timbral color evolve in overlapping unisons and octaves. (2) Its sixty measures can be broken down into cycles of ensemble attacks overlaid with swells among individual instruments. As the hollow low register clarinet mingles with the timpani in the opening, the first attack (m.4) fuses horn and flute with viola and 'cello harmonics and the second (m. 8) - trumpet, celeste and high strings. In measures 12-18, the drone reduces to unison swells essentially among the strings before drifting to the high flute and brass rods (3) in m. 23 followed by a similar low register excursion in the double basses in measure 30. A further, more sustained gravitation to upper-register sonorities in measures 38-50 brings about the dynamic high point of the drone in the f swells in the mid- and upper-register strings accompanied by the descent once more to the basses in the extreme low registers. The drone closes (and is actually interrupted) on the low and lower mid-register octaves upon which it opened.

The only distractions from the seamless play of colors are the delicate, intonations of the timpani, the diffuse "misting" of gong sonorities and the subtle, percussive masked attacks (i.e. in m. 23 as the harp and vibraphone mask the onset of the winds.) The unison and octave mixtures attract the ear to remarkable qualitative differences in timbre: the rustle noises of the strings, breathy qualities of the low register winds and upper-register flutes, the rounded finish of the brass, often, also, the strong third harmonic in the double reeds, and the purity of the drone draws the inharmonic tuning of the gong and other percussion sonorities into relief. In both graceful and restless shifts of register, the thin, edge-like qualities of upper tones contrast with the expansive colorful auras of the mid- and low-register tones, and particularly in the low brass, and bassoon, the crescendi and decrescendi against the drone also produce glowing swells and recessions in the harmonic sound color of individual instruments.

The opening drone of Taffytime (on A) is more heavily laden in a foreshadowing of timbral and gestural ideas, but like East of the Beach, it awakens with a pizzicato attack, and begins coolly in mid-register sonorities in the woodwinds. A swell in the marimba brings about a darkening of the drone in the lower strings, eventually initiating deep and foreboding turning figures in the double basses and the hollow fifth arises gently in the low register clarinet amid the lower register pulsations in the strings. A series of quasi-stream of consciousness of images follows. An upper-register "color" sonority (E-A-D mm.16-17) in the winds, edges against the upper E natural of the drone, evoking swells in the oboe and trumpet and a momentary tingling (m. 25) in the high register percussion (triangle, celeste with xylophone and glockenspiel) which resonates in the rustle of harp bisbigliandi. A grating low register "cluster sonority" erupts in the 'cellos and double basses, rhythmically sustained in the low strings (mm.31-34) whose fade-out is cut off by a brusque flourish of consonant "hockets" or quick staccato alternations in the brass. Further clusterings in the winds (i.e. G naturals and Bs conflicting with the As and Es of the drone) coalesce in a rich high-register granular complex - a repeated-note rhythmicization of the brief earlier tingling in the percussion, sustained now in the strings pizzicato, percussion, celeste, harp, brass rods, and pitched mallets (m.38-49.) This is gradually taken over by swells on the drone E natural in the upper winds, and in particular, a high penetrating unison in the oboe and clarinet which breaks into the initial high-register arabesques of the piece. The drone sifts back however, in the brass rods, covered by a rich and delicate complex of bisbigliando clusters in the harp, and brushed cymbals, and then stirred maracas which cover the onset of the taped field crickets. The drone E natural persists pointillistically in the initial drip-dropping of the xylophone (heard earlier in the high register rhythmic clustering of mm. 38-49) and the ensuing arabesques in the mallet instruments.

One of the most penetrating and elemental features of the recent pieces is their sense of modality. The stark austerity of the A drones, the deep yearning of the drones on E contrast with the warmth and color of the F and C drones seem to constitute a harmonic and emotional ethos in the ancient sense. The drone tonalities (F, C, E, A and only occasionally D and B) (4) however are subject to modulation as well as various scalic colorations from pentatonic, to diatonic, chromatic and sub-chromatic which further enrich the association of emotional qualities with the more absolute registral and orchestrational features of the modal centres.

The rich and often micro-tonal arabesques seem to have tentatively entered Erickson's music via allusions to the music of the Ancient Greeks in Down at Piraeus (1969, for chorus soprano solo and tape) but they became more fully defined in the solo pieces Quoq and Kryl. These ornate and virtuosic strands form a patchwork of repeated tones, turning figures, arpeggiations (mostly octaves, fifths and fourths) and chromatic/sub-chromatic motions. They are of an improvisatory character, and are usually centered around modal reciting tones often in expressive consonances and dissonances against a drone sonority. They vary in the degree of their ambitus and scalic orientation and have a unusually incantational quality whether in solo or in dialogue or as they occasionally occur, in flourishes of heterophony. Certain "tuning" figures appear to bend typically around the central tones (the quarter tone inflections in Example 2a ) and others, perhaps more like bird-calls in character include arpeggiations of fifth and octaves (Example 2b) and "stepping" thirds (2c.) Erickson's speculative interests in the music of the ancient Greeks and the various tunings of the tetrachordal harmoniae (5) may in some way be related to the various flavors and characters of these passages.



Example 2: a) Kryl opening, b) Quintet m.4. c) Quintet m. 25

Copyright (1989) by Smith Publications, 2617, Gwyndale Ave. Baltimore, MD 21207 USA. Used by permission.

Example 3: Quoq page 2

Copyright (1989) by Smith Publications, 2617, Gwyndale Ave. Baltimore, MD 21207 USA. Used by permission.

In the more elaborate solo arabesques of Quoq (below,) it is possible to observe simultaneous and alternating tonal centers upon which the figurations are woven. Example 3 reproduces the second page of the piece where these "centerings" are interspersed with linear developments. An extreme upper-register center can be observed in the high G-As of the first and second lines of the page with coincidental poles on a mid-register E-F and lower register G-B. The G of the third line however constitutes a completely new tonal orientation in the piece which flirts briefly with the mid- and low-register F centers (middle of the fourth line) before swelling to the E - D trills which in turn descend chromatically to the D - C major ninth alternation and connect, via octave descent, to the D - C natural alternation in the low register. The fifth line returns to the previous registrations around low F/G-B and mid-register F - but with a new, mid-register center on C and the sixth line reintroduces the extreme upper register in an apparent fluctuation between all of the principle registral centers.

East of the Beach has been the only ensemble piece to attempt a sustained usage of hocket, (6) alternating in its last movement between brilliant and percolating mosaics in the winds and strings. Although they are not hockets in the strict definition of the term, many passages of registral and timbral discontinuity are found in the two solo pieces Kryl and Quoq. (See Example 4) They are also in certain ways similar to the timbral alteration in drumming patterns of Percussion Loops which evolve over long spans, shifting in the relative predominance of their interacting sound qualities.


Example 4: Kryl , letter L

Copyright (1989) by Smith Publications, 2617, Gwyndale Ave. Baltimore, MD 21207 USA. Used by permission.

A certain klangfarbenmelodie can also be observed in these passages of Kryl in a drone on pedal tones which is colored in rhythmically shifting finger-pattern resonances, much like a Jew' s harp. Many of the amazing effects in the piece arise from the singular abilities of its collaborator trumpeter/extended vocalist Ed Harkins. One passage worth noting in particular (Example 5) actually combines a simple tune which is sung while blowing a pedal tone into the alternating valve resonances. Still more remarkable effects are produced later in the piece when the pedal-tones resonances are replaced with glottal "fry".


Example 5: Kryl letter N

Copyright (1989) by Smith Publications, 2617, Gwyndale Ave. Baltimore, MD 21207 USA. Used by permission.

"Hocket" passages also persist in Erickson's music in small doses, often in spontaneous isolation or short fits and starts in relief of the drone or
klangfarben sonorities or incantational arabesques. (See Example 6.) While Erickson is obviously interested in the unusual perceptual effects of melodic continuity which arise in these passages, hocket is also a device of communal music (7) enhancing the closeness of the ensemble in the production of composite lines.


Example 6: Auroras, mm. 165 - 167

Copyright (1989) by Smith Publications, 2617, Gwyndale Ave. Baltimore, MD 21207 USA. Used by permission.

In addition to the generalized uses of drones, hockets and arabesques, more specific musical images recur in many of Erickson's recent works. These seem to be consistent with Erickson's compositional intuitions of "remembered sounds." A diatonic F major polyphony can be observed in a number of pieces, always in the strings and often in a certain Mahlerian ländler-like character in its unrestrained linearity and its graceful intertwining of diatonic and pentatonic figures. (Example 7).


Example 7: Solstice, mm. 78 - 80

Copyright (1989) by Smith Publications, 2617, Gwyndale Ave. Baltimore, MD 21207 USA. Used by permission.

Another figure which seems to have an opposite function in Erickson's vocabulary is the repeated note ostinato (see Example 8 below), most often on incisive E naturals and sometimes intensified with the upper and lower chromatic neighbors on F and D#. It occurs interruptively and is frequently intensified in climactic gestures.


Example 8: Solstice, m. 292 - 294

Copyright (1989) by Smith Publications, 2617, Gwyndale Ave. Baltimore, MD 21207 USA. Used by permission.

As already noted, certain "color" sonorities figure in Erickson's vocabulary of harmonic gestures, composed typically of combinations and inversions of fourths and seconds but also involving denser scalic clusterings, and occasionally more dissonant inharmonic sonorities. Their registrations, and spacings seem to be balanced for discrete mixtures of individual timbres, (8) often with octave doublings. (See Example 9 below.) Many personalized sound images are also to be found in Erickson's use of particular instruments: the solemn and gentle intonations of the timpani or contrabass pizzicato, the shimmering ethereal clusterings of the brass-rod resonances, the piercing high register of the clarinet (often the shrill E clarinet as in Night Music) and the different guises of the trumpet - its crystalline high register and its cool, rich and "oceanic" low-register.


 Example 9: Auroras, mm. 320 - 326 (String parts excluded)

Copyright (1989) by Smith Publications, 2617, Gwyndale Ave. Baltimore, MD 21207 USA. Used by permission.


Tonal Narrative and the Design of the Recent Pieces

Like many critical pigeon holes, tonal "narrative" in Erickson's recent music is really only factor among many - albeit a very interesting factor. While standard formal and tonal schemata, make very little sense of Erickson's interplay of timbral and orchestrational relationships, story-line interpretations seem to be encouraged by the composer and they are immensely rewarding and intriguing to both listeners and musicians alike. In his notes to Taffytime Erickson writes the following:

Lately I have come to feel that all compositions have secret programs, songs with their words erased. Sometimes the scenario changes as the piece is composed. There may not be a scenario, only a feeling in one's belly.

I wrestle with how much or how little to tell of my triggering images and experiences. Better too little than too much, I think.

Just enough would be wonderful, if one could guess what that might be. Here is what I think is just enough for the piece: Lately (my winter changing into spring and summer) I have come to feel that gliding down is not so far from parachuting up.

All of the structural idioms discussed so far have certain archetypal narrative roles in the inter-relation of Erickson's ensemble and tonal resources. The subtle fusions of characters in the drones, the initial stirrings and awakenings of the solo incantations and arabesques, and the playful or sometimes quarrelsome flourishes of hocket all have developmental possibilities which are realized in combination with the other, more unique images of individual compositions. The texts which Erickson uses often have strong narrative and also cinematic implications. This is particularly true with the text of Sierra which consists of place names and names of people in a spiritual pilgrimage through the sierra of the old gold rushes. The songs for the Five Centuries Ensemble, Birds at Dusk and Before Dawn, similarly witness an underlying passage of dusk to night and back to dawn and, as in Sierra, the title and text of Mountain and its simple suggestions of "high", "highest", "how high", "dim weather" etc. contribute a striking layer of visual association in the play of sonority and timbral nuance.



Auroras is an example of the richness and complexity of narrative design in Erickson's music. In his notes to the score, the composer cites serious preoccupations about his illness and an early morning awakening to multitudes of birds outside his motel room on a trip to Turlock, California, as influences in the composition of Auroras, but he denies any story or scenario. The work is also absorbed in a very delicate "chamber" ensemble conception of the orchestra. It avoids tutti passages as well as drone sonorities, unfolding defiantly from its opening D naturals in the brass to a sustained quintal sonority (D-A-E) with winding agitated arabesques in the trumpet and trombone. The clarinets join the arabesques against accumulating background sonorities (a scalic A-B-C-E filling in of upper fifth of the opening quintal sonority) and forge to an interruptive upper-register G (m. 25) in the brass which is broken off, magically unveiling the ethereal resonance of the brass rods, and overlapping swells in the upper winds. This becomes the point of departure for a brief chromatic and micro-tonal arabesque in the oboe, emphasizing upper-register A-C naturals and triggering initial hesitant C naturals of the violins.

The violin's octave/unison melody expands in a warm, rich, and wide-ranging pentatonic F major, subsiding gradually however through more troubled quavers (F-B) and restless, running mid- and upper-register (B minor) pianissimos. The strings further embroil in crisp intense chordal hockets with the winds (m. 68) which shift into sustained color sonorities against the soft running upper-register tremulations in the violins - their quick, startling arpeggiation (m.71) spawning brilliant scalic strands in the lower then upper winds. Glistening, sustained gestures of the brass rods gradually invade the winds and are imitated in swelling color sonorities against the receding arabesques which lead to a remarkable cadence on a sustained clustering of the flutes and clarinets (A-D-E-A) against the dying resonances of the brass rods.

The second section of the piece (m. 99) erupts frighteningly in driving rhythmic swells in the timpani, overlaid by incisive hockets and sustained crescendi in the low brass. The dark rhythmic complex eventually thins out, laying bare strands of repeated low-register D naturals in the strings, piano and harp from which the brass swell in menacing crescendi on octave mid-register A naturals spreading gradually to upper and lower mid-register cluster sonorities in alternation with the continued aggressive outbursts in the timpani and hockets in the brass. With the subsiding of these incursive energies, the brass and woodwinds echo rich colorful swells of cluster sonorities (m. 187 - 212) which gradually descend in register to form a gentle background for incipient melodic arabesques in the horns and upper winds. Agitated qualities are maintained however in more subdued nuances of the arabesques as they too descend to the trombone and tuba (m. 233 - 235) against residual flutter tonguings in the trumpet and flutes.

A legato stirring in the double basses winds its way back upwards through the tuba and trombone to the 'celli and violas and intensifies almost expressionistically in the violins which sustain biting repeated note figures (m.246, high A natural with Gs in the violas) against strident arpeggiations in the clarinets and oboes - but suddenly soften with the first, floating exchanges of birdcall arabesques in the high winds, celeste, xylophone and harp. The clarinets in their arabesques, recede to trilled clusters (mm. 263 - 267) with the return of brass rod resonances and color sonorities first in the horns, and then oboes who pass an upper-register F natural to the violins, initiating a delicate lyrical solo heterophony between the strings and upper winds (mm. 282 - 293.) Darker, more plaintive and urgent nuances in the oboe and low double reeds eventually incite a series of pointed entries in the brass and a raucous descending solo riff in the bassoons (m. 310). With a quick hocket in the trombones, the swells of color sonorities in the winds re-emerge under the "halo" of a swelling sustained line in the violins, climbing to a high G tremolando which is echoed once more in the return of the high brass rods. A further quick hocket in the trombones, and more intense swells of cluster sonorities in the brass are echoed by the woodwinds against the persistence of the high G tremolo in the strings. More insistent hockets in the trombones reawaken an outbreak of the timpani and again the menacing swells on upper mid-register A naturals in the brass. As in the early developments, the unison spreads to cluster sonorities amid further repercussions in the timpani and in the trombones to searing color chord crescendi in the brass, woodwinds and strings which die out in swells in sub-choirs, and once more in the violins high tremolo G natural.

Pianissimo excitations (pizzicato hockets in the strings) enjoin the violins' shimmering tremolandi which spread to the flutes and trumpets but as the hockets briefly intensify to staccati in the brass, another thin "halo" of an upper-register C natural re-emerges in the strings and clarinets against light, isolated, drip-dropping staccati in the flutes and mallet percussion. A more intense low register swell on C natural in the timpani and vibraphones culminates in a disjointed pizzicato fragment in the double basses and timpani but is interrupted by sharp tremolandi swells and hocket staccati in the trombones and accumulating background sonorities in the mid-register horns and woodwinds which float upwards in a chord stream in the flutes against the shift of the "halo" slowly and, at length, to an intensely swelling G natural. The poignant shift of the "halo" to A natural evokes a mixture of heavier pizzicati in the low strings and unpitched percussion, and a broken unfolding of a cluster sonority in the winds to upper-register C naturals and high register Ds before the closing swells in the violins on their high A naturals are echoed, briefly in the brass rods and in the slow closing rhythmic iterations in the harp.


Stream of consciousness imageries are stronger in certain of Erickson's recent works than in others, arising often in the rich meditative qualities of the drones and the spontaneous incantational qualities of the arabesques, as if tracing sequences of remembered events and emotions. Taffytime may be the best example of this more introspective tone in Erickson' recent music.

The cricket drone is overtaken in more coherent arabesques in the marimbas and xylophones, which eventually fuse in a brilliant high-register stream of chordal tremoli (mm. 90-96 - the opening portions of the drone were discussed earlier.) As the tremolo stream thins to B naturals it persists against ephemeral dissonances in the brass rods, and re-expands to arabesques against clusterings in the winds and upper-register strings before disappearing mysteriously in the return of the E natural drone in the upper-register oboe and a sustained pianissimo complex in the brushed cymbals (mm.103-122).

The central passages of the piece form a fluctuating series of episodes and interactions: between winds and percussion, between pitched and unpitched percussion and also between the tonal centers of A and E. Initial melodic gravitations to E natural in the winds are reflected in pitched and semi-pitched percussion complexes (mm.130-141) but an ascending exchange of arabesques extends from the double basses to the bass clarinet to the tuba, clarinets and finally flutes and establishes a hesitant and quivering extreme upper-register A natural which is transferred to the xylophone against hockets in the brass. This is subsumed in the percussion in expanding thundersheet resonances which lighten to shimmerings and rattlings in the cymbals and tambourines (mm.167 - 169.) These are assimilated and transformed in air-sound resonances in the flute (A natural) and trumpet (m.171-176) amid a dissonant "shingling" in the low brass and flute (mm.170) and a deliberate stepping in the trumpets from upper-register D natural to E. The alternation with A natural becomes more heated with the intervention of color sonorities and hockets against a protrusive A natural in the trumpet (mm.179) and brilliant scalic sweeps in the harps to menacing mid-register unison E naturals in the brass. The tonal focus however disappears once more in further hocketings and higher register clusterings in the handbells, (mm.187 - 193) which, after low ppp rumblings in the bass drum, erupt in an explosion of unpitched metal (cymbal/gong tubular bell sweeps etc.) against biting A naturals in the harp and woodwinds (m.195.)

Directionality resumes in another chain of overlapping arabesques against a shimmering metallic background (cymbal/brush tremolandi, handbells and thundersheet resonances.) Ascending through the bass clarinet, and bassoon to the clarinet they attain forceful, high register fifths on F and C in the oboes and clarinets which are split triadically by A natural alternating with A in the oboe, then joined incisively by A naturals in the trumpet (mm. 202-205) in a barren, exposed unison exchange of sixteenth-note rhythms. As the rhythmic impulse diffuses, the A natural becomes further transfigured in slow glistening swells in the high register brass rods and is in turn embroiderd with frail glissandi in the piccolo and violin harmonics (mm.220-224.)

In climbing to a high C natural however, the piccolo awakens the muted violins on their own upper-register C from which they descend in a warm, flowing diatonic polyphony, opening gracefully downward over the entire string section (m.227) before asserting an expansive nine measure drone on C natural (mm.241-249.) This is dramatically countered however, by forceful and unanimous A naturals (14 measure) among the rest of the orchestra (mm.250-264) to which the strings eventually acquiesce. Quick, multi-register hockets and a brief cluster sonority are superimposed on the drone before an eruption once more of the grating low-register cluster chords fff in the strings. The sustained grinding tension again masks the return of the cricket tape (m.288) which is unveiled in a receding aura of filagree arabesques, tambourine tremolando and an eerie exchange of rattlings (knuckles) on the body of the string instruments. An increasingly insistent rhythmic ostinato in the snare drum becomes momentarily lost in an explosive outbreak of the cymbals but prevails, eventually outlasting the field crickets and continuing in a stark and resolute solo to an abrupt halt bringing the work to a remarkable close.

Although as Erickson muses, the composer would hesitate to say too much about a piece, there can be little doubt of the psychological nature of Taffytime. Its very personalized title, its temporal circularities, its sense of waiting and the tensions emanating from the sound of the crickets, all point metaphorically inward. In an essay entitled "Composing Music", the last chapter of his autobiographical sketches, Erickson makes some comments which seem to fit the drama of this piece.

The time between pieces, the empty, amorphous, floppy chunks of time the waiting time, needs filling and in my case it needs to be filled in a way that invites the next piece or pieces of music. The most important thing about composing is this waiting - waiting in the right way, without fidgeting, respecting the unconscious interior chemistry that will one day fizz up as the decision to compose. That decision is almost always triggered by something heard, occasionally a musical sound, but more often an intriguing natural sound, something in the environment. In playing with this sound, working out how to make analogues or variations of it with musical instruments, or imagining it in various musical contexts, I may find that it attracts other sounds to it, until a little snowball of sounds has started to roll, and with it the beginning of a new composition. (9)

The modality of E and A and F/C seem to have pivotal roles in the eventual outcome of the work. The entry of the strings in their warm diatonic F major (arising from a high A - C natural as in the beginning of Auroras) lead to the most conclusive assertion of the A natural drone and the framing return of the cricket noises. The F major presence was actually foreshadowed in the high F-A-C triad of m.202 and the subsequent ostinato rhythms on A natural in the trumpet and oboe (m.204) seem also to distantly herald the ultimate rhythmic consistency to which the work finally succumbs.



As in Mountain, Sierra for tenor solo and chamber orchestra, composes a narrative which is intrinsically linked to orchestrational imagery. The text (see Figure 2) is nothing more than a series of suggestions in the vocal line of names of places and people associated with the old gold mining trails of 1840s. It is framed at the beginning and end by fragments from the poetry of John Muir. The musical function of the text is also like that of Mountain, a suggestive textual overlay on the orchestrational events in the drones and ostinati. Erickson's gravitation toward imagery of rock, desert and mountain is as rich and penetrating as it has been to the ocean in earlier works (Oceans, Pacific Sirens, and The Idea of Order at Key West). The brass and the piano and the gritty baritone voice resonate the harsh natural realities of the prospector's world in themes of "quest" and "gold(!)" - in all its physical and spiritual connotations and in a unique sense of quest and journey.

Figure 2: Text of Sierra

The opening E naturals are foreboding and expansive, descending from shimmering tremolandi in the strings harp and vibraphones to crystalline attacks in the upper winds and to deep swells in the low strings against the longing incantations and melismas of the baritone ("Tuoleme River"). A low menacing, surge in the piano and strings on "Oh those vast calm mountains" is answered in a clear upper-register minor third E-G on "Light" (m. 15) in the trumpet/trombone blending in unison with flute and clarinet, and a restless stirring of arabesques among the ensemble on "live" winds back to the deep E natural drone on "Wawona" (m. 18). A dense low register sonority in the strings against "Ah, the quiet trees ..." jumps to high harmonics (E, A, D) with harp bisbigliandi and brushed cymbal tremolandi beneath the whispered and falsetto "Hush, Hush." (m. 22) With "Ahwanee quiet" the timpani begins its own solemn incantations in tremolandi and isolated rhythmic figures centered about octave E naturals. The crisp interjections of "Sugar Pine" and "Nipinawasee" (m. 45) add an urgency in the low register drone/ostinato of the timpani which accumulates in pizzicatti in the lower strings and dark sustained timbres on the drone in the lower woodwinds and brass. Suggestions of "down" in the text are mirrored in descending sweeps in the voice and a cascading (scalic and glissando) line in the lower strings and winds descends to a renewed intensity in the drone in incisive repeated sixteenths in the low register piano (m.64), The ostinato builds to mid- and upper-register winds against a lyrical and urgent arabesque in the violin, and climbs further to the extreme upper-register xylophone, harp and piano, as the baritone ardently entwines "Mount Bullion. Ah golden hills," and recedes to another fiercely interruptive convergence once more on the menacing low register drone (m.88)

As the journey continues, aggressive flashes of the brass and drumming timbres are imposed upon the drone rhythms and place names ("Coulterville" and "Mocasin" "Jim Town.") A whimsical "hee haw" in the violin ("Jackass Hill") springs to repeated-note shimmerings in the extreme high register flute above the sotto voce echoing of "Angels Camp." This is joined with trilled crescendi (m. 128) in the mid- and upper-register clarinet and oboe ("Hello Mark and Brett" in sprechstimme) swelling to a quick hocket in the brass and an intrepid line in the trombone which draws the insistent rhythmic drone in the piano and ensemble up to B natural with its cadence (m. 144). The trombone's lines are taken over in a trumpet solo, reining in the momentum of the ostinato and forging a poised and brilliant solo in leaps to a high sustained E natural before stepping back down to a close on the B natural of the drone. (m. 165) As the voice proceeds assertively with "Groundhog's Glory" and timidly through "Ladies Canyon," Devil's Basin" and "Bogus Thunder," a clambering tremolando in the mallet percussion and harp rises to another high point in an isolated extreme upper-register C natural (m. 173) in the glockenspiel on "Bed Bug." A tingling of the small triangle topples another cascading scalic and glissando descent, diving back down to the drone on E natural sustained forbodingly once more in the piano, low brass and strings.

A primitive ostinato rhythm in repetitive sixteenths resumes in the drums (covered timpani) evoking a spirited tuneful fragment in the violin with the gritty intonation of "Oh Californie, that's the land for me." "Yip. I'm bound for Sacramento..." draws plaintive glissandi in the violins and a tuneful fiddle fragment (m. 220. With the subdued "Supper, Crick," the drone shifts in the upper mid- register to sustained G naturals (m. 228) passed successively from the trumpet to the horn and trombone as the drums shift through a colorful variety of rim and roto tom colors. The trombone swells intensely on its upper mid-register G and the drumming returns to the timpani with the first invocations of "gold" in the text (m.254) echoed in upper-register shimmerings in the piano and winds and receding in a mournful lament on "John Marshall" and a subdued "Growlersville" on a low B against the sustained G in the trumpet (m. 280).

The voice's breathy solo exclamations of "Dry Diggins's" "Last Chance" is transfigured in gusts of hollow air sounds of the upper winds which re-awaken the drums and the return of the E natural (m. 296), at first in subtle whisperings in the flute and then in deathly lower mid-register echoes in the trombone. With "Bid's Bar" and "Better Bar" the ostinato grows with colorful unison hocketing between bassoon, clarinet and oboe and repeated-note iterations and glissandi in the strings - gaining in tempo and shifting to tremolandi in the strings as the trumpets step to an upper-register G natural (m.325.) Here the voice is subdued, and initial melismatic realizations of "Gold" intensify with the entrance of scalic ascents to D and leaps to high C and B, more assuredly iterating "Gold" before seizing with the rest of the ostinato upon B natural (m.345) and rising in long expectant melismas to a high D as the repeated note ensemble ostinato slips down to E, spreading its resonant seventh with the voice over all registers of the ensemble from the extremes of the double bases to the flutes and glockenspiels (m.361. See Example 10.) The dissolution of this remarkable climax is by simple and suspenseful attrition, twinged by a mid-register F natural (violas and mallets) as the ensemble ostinato decelerates. to slow hypnotic repetitions of the E natural (m.395) in the upper strings against a mournful and plaintive "Grass Valley." The low spacious, rumbling of the timpani resonate the dark, luminous tutti E natural with an isolated, and incongruously cheerful "Hi Terry!."


Example 10: Sierra, mm.356-364

Copyright (1989) by Smith Publications, 2617, Gwyndale Ave. Baltimore, MD 21207 USA. Used by permission.

The bassoon and trombone's deep bending around the drone spreads to slow haunting glissandi in the 'cellos (m.426) and a brief melodic reflection in the trombone links to an upward cascading and a brief dissonant polyphony in the trumpet and trombone (m.436.) A second upward cascading to "Downeyville." attains a tingling "halo" in the piano and freer, crystalline weaving of arabesques in the trumpet and trombone with "SIerra!" reaching sparkling tremolandi in the mallets percussion and piano/harp ("Yuma Pass") and a forceful G natural in the brass (m.446,) emblazoned with high register scalic sonorities in the strings and upper winds on "Tahoe". "Bliss" however is sustained in the voice and trombone which reaches up to a high E natural to be joined by mid- and low-register tutti octaves (m.451) The baritone fervently incants "I am always glad to touch the living rock again" on a vibrant mid-register C natural against the fused ensemble sonority which swells to a brilliant and consuming cutoff.

Some Observations on the Evolution of Compositional Thought in Solstice and Corfu

The more one studies Erickson's recent music, the more one becomes aware of an intriguing reworking and carry-over of ideas from one piece to the next. The sense of the drone and the hocket, ostinati, and arabesques are all renewed in different orchestrations, scenarios and choices of drone tonalities and focal images. As he writes again in "Composing Music":

The sounds are material to be thought about, yes, but they are also and probably more importantly material to be thought with. I believe that when I am imagining, combining, categorizing and comparing sounds I am mentally doing something very like thinking. When engaged in this work and play with sounds I use words very sparingly, though I do end up with conclusions of a sort. At the end of a work/play sequence there is a kind of resolution, a settling into place, not too different in character from the sort of conclusiveness one sometimes feels as the satisfying end to a sequence of verbal mental maneuvers. Neither words nor imagery are necessary. Everything is done with remembered sounds. (10)

The two pieces for string quartet, Solstice and Corfu, written at a very short separation in time, would seem to provide an ideal insight into these processes in Erickson's music. Schematic representations in Figures 4 and 5 provide abstractions of the sequential episodic organizations of the two pieces for the purpose of comparison. Once again, in his notes to the score, Erickson denies any scenario or plot from which either piece was derived, but the solstice metaphor in the earlier piece, as the cyclical turning point in the balance between day and night is very effective, particularly in the constant presence of C natural throughout the work, either as a drone or subordinate melodic or harmonic element. The design of the piece seems to be generated through changing background/foreground relations between the drones, and successions of timbral/dramatic characters as well as certain structurings of tempo typically in accelerandi and ritardandi (see Figure 3). The composer also remarks in the notes that work falls into three sections defined by lengthy pauses but the piece again portrays a quality of prolonged "waiting" with a number of false endings before its final resolution.

Significant tonal details emerge in the unsettled opening - in particular, its ascending emphases on E and G in its initial chromatic line (see Example 11 below) as the violin emerges from the initial trills and arabesques.

Example 11: Solstice, m. 9-11, violin part

Copyright (1989) by Smith Publications, 2617, Gwyndale Ave. Baltimore, MD 21207 USA. Used by permission.

Repeated fourths in m.18 appear at least at this point as an undeveloped element in the viola and it is the 'cello which instigates the essential formal impetus of the work in its nervous arabesques and its lower register descent through B to A natural (m. 28) against the serenity of the C - G fifth. After its poignant recession to a solo C natural (m. 46-48) the 'cello persists in its agitations against the gradual awakenings in the diatonic polyphony in the other instruments The incursion of the high tremolando (m. 63) which interrupts the viola's arabesques also seems to activate and further clarify the diatonic polyphony and foreshadow its intensification in a prolonged and scintillating upper-register (m. 88-104) alternation of B natura -l C in a metered accelerando. The recession from this focal event is both subtle and significant as the B-C alternation decelerates gradually against viola arabesques and eventually (m. 52) softens to C-B-C, reflecting incipient F minor/ D major colorations in the arabesques. The B- C alternation is further horizontalized in the octave alternations of the outgrowth and intensification of this section and it is also central to the pppp "barely audible" figure which is hushed against the drone. (See Example 12 below.) The outbreak of chromatic fourths in the violin and 'cello are spontaneous although perhaps not unrelated to the repeated fourths and the sixteenth note syncopation of the opening. Their alternation however, with the pppp fragment, seems to anticipate the entrance of other such mysterious characters such as the brief streams of ascending glissandi which close the section in m. 175 - 178.


Example 12: Solstice, m. 136 - 140

Copyright (1989) by Smith Publications, 2617, Gwyndale Ave. Baltimore, MD 21207 USA. Used by permission.


The next section begins with a sense of indecision and re-initiation. Intimations of E natural (in harmonics) and G mingle in the hockets with fleeting suggestions of chromatic arabesques. Following the reversion to the diatonic polyphony, the earlier intimations of E natural are realized in the sixteenth ostinato on E in m. 215 (recalling the sixteenth note fixations of the earlier metric trills of m. 88 - 104). Strident sevenths which are superimposed upon the ostinato are re-attacked after its dissipation in m. 235 in a dissonant harmonic complex  (see Example 13 below.) The pianissimo echo of this sonority dissolves via chromatic lines in the violins downward to the now ghostly, sustained reassertions of the C natural drone.


Example 13: Solstice, m. 234 - 238

Copyright (1989) by Smith Publications, 2617, Gwyndale Ave. Baltimore, MD 21207 USA. Used by permission.

A further reawakening in arpeggiated octaves retraces the opening chromatic melodic ascent of the violin from C to G via echoes of the syncopated sixteenth-note rhythm of the chromatic fourths, but dissolves once more in a brief echoing of the repeated note ostinato on E (m. 260 -261) which, after a further brief regression to the F major polyphony, slips to C natural where it recedes in a metric ritardando against a dropping melodic fourth F to C in the violin.

The brief, but intense closing section (m.281) begins hesitantly once more from the high C in the solo violin but opens out immediately in chromatic sixteenths to A natural and the now insurgent sixteenth note ostinato on E. The ensemble interaction is intensified with brilliant scalic fragments and shifts of the ostinato tonality to E-B (see Example 8 above) and the climactic resolution emerges at first to an upper-register trilled sonority (G-A, E-F, F-G, B-C) and finally on the opening trill on D-C in unisons (an octave above its original occurrence,) once more decelerating to C-B natural alternations and finally iterations of C natural. A final brief hocketing of pizzicato and harmonics unveils the solo violin, once more retracing its chromatic ascent from E to G but this time descending back down to join the lengthily sustained unisons on C.

It is not surprising to see in Corfu, many of the same images and relationships developed in the earlier piece, but also with significant new twists and departures. Like Solstice, Corfu begins on the C-G drone although here, instead of the trills, it is a low and mid-register tremolando fading from fortissimo to pianissimo. As in the earlier piece, however, the opening passages consist essentially of alternations between solo (and occasional duo) arabesques and the sustained drone elements. Focal elements of Solstice, such as the brief glissando gestures and the trilled cluster sonority arise as distinctive passing elements in the opening of Corfu. A gradual process of chromaticization occurs in the arabesques beginning in m. 42 as they are passed with greater intensity through the individual players against a shifting pianissimo background of sustained drone sonorities. The eventual dissolution of the section is to E however, in an accumulation of extreme upper-register harmonics resolving in crystalline octaves (see Figure 4.)


Figure 3: Solstice Schematic Representation ( o indicates passages in harmonics)


Figure 4: Solstice Schematic Representation ( o indicates passages in harmonics)

The central section of the piece is concerned with polarities on E and B in a variety of emphases, combinations and juxtapositions. It begins with pre-emptive assertions of E natural (m. 85) in mid-register ff unisons and then briefly in a sixteenth-note ostinato taking on the intense repeated-note/scalic passages reminiscent of the climactic passages of Solstice. A counter-statement is made on B natural, softening the ostinato against pizzicatti (as in the E natural ostinati in Solstice) in the 'cellos and through alternations with the return of the harmonics in eighths which lead to the repeated- note ostinato briefly on C and a digression to F-C arpeggiations. A concerted re-insistence on E (m. 114) in repeated sixteenths in upper- and mid-register octaves is suddenly broken off in E-B and D-A arpeggiations and a close in sustained E natural harmonics with a chromatic fragment in the violin eventually settling on the E natural.

As in Solstice, we see a certain fluctuation in the tonal and formal direction of the piece at this point. The 'cello briefly reiterates the low B (m. 125) initiating a passing polyphony with the viola which is interrupted by an incisive but recessive tremolando on E natural. Further digressive alternations involve sustained color sonorities, interjections of the repeated-note ostinato on B, hocketed pizzicatti, quickenings of the harmonic fragments and a brief tremolando on C natural. A short subito ostinato on B, however in the violins (m. 160) initiates a stabilization of the interaction of B and E polarities, first taking the B as a background drone against a chromatic 'cello fragment which is continued in the violin against a "ghostly" E-B natural sustained in the other instruments. (m. 171 - 178.) The developing polyphonic texture, however, is overtaken in E-B arpeggiations and a brief recession to gentle octave oscillations and a sustained pause on a fourth, B-E. (m.190-193) The most insistent incursion of the B ostinato (m. 196 - 215) echoes earlier juxtapositions of the pizzicato and harmonic timbres but culminates in a sustained focal intensity and a sudden cutoff.

As in Solstice, the 'cello takes a central role in the evolution of the form,. Here, however, it is in a reflective solo which gravitates immediately to the low C natural of the instrument, also softening its B natural to B flat and emphasizing F and C amid chromatic and micro-tonal arabesques and a graceful reiterative cadence on low C naturals. A lengthy coda ensues in a rich consonant polyphony with complete registral and motivic freedom in all voices. The violin (m 240) initially spins a slow line from an upper mid-register C. Although essentially in F it touches only once on B flat amid upper-register harmonics on C natural echoed among the other voices. Other lines awaken in of a gentle flourish of eighths in the upper-register and recede (not without some troubled chromaticisms in the viola) to a series of soloistic arabesques, first in the 'cello, then the viola and the first violin. This is broken off, however, in the confrontation of C-B octaves (m. 275) which preface the closing resumption of the drone and free linear F major, absorbing inharmonic echoes of their earlier dissonances in the collision of biting C-B natural and D-C sevenths as the work finds its closing pause on serene F naturals in all registers.

As Erickson, has often remarked, (11) he does not write forms but rather linkings of episodes. These may involve conventional form-defining moments and rhetorics (i.e., climactic, transitional, interruptive, closural passages etc.) but these lead in original and significant directions. The fact that Corfu ends on F, away from its opening drone on C-G and Solstice reverts very deliberately, but after various closes to its opening C natural, has much to do with the different poetic characters of these pieces. Where Solstice traverses and re-traverses a landscape to a climactic resolution, Corfu is more direct and juxtapositional with a sense of passage, relying perhaps, also on tensions and ideas which had already become familiar in the earlier piece. Its essential movement is out of the interacting tensions of the C, G, E and B to a resolution in the diatonic polyphony in F which in Solstice was a point of departure and relapse with the intrusions of the ostinato passages on E. In both works E natural images interrupt the tonal narrative, however, with delicate preparation in Corfu and more subtle innuendo in Solstice. In both pieces, hocket passages invoke moments of formal uncertainty in alternation with repeated note ostinati. Where Corfu deals with a very clear and simple tonal design it is also reduced to bare essentials of Erickson's vocabulary of timbral and harmonic resources. Solstice, however, is more circuitous and rich in the significance of its detailed chromatic inflections (the outlining of emphases on E and G in the ascending chromatic violin line, for example) with certain uniquely haunting images such as the ascending violin glissandi, the "barely audible" sub-chromatic shadow melody and biting chromatic fourths. It is interesting to note in both pieces, although in different positions, confrontations of C and B octave sforzandi which are subsequently intensified into more dissonant chromatic clashes of major sevenths before temporary or closing dissolutions.



Appendix A:

Erickson's Compositions 1974-1987

1974 Summer Music, for Violin and Tape

Rainbow Rising, for Orchestra

1975 White Lady, for Wind Ensemble

1976-77 Garden, for Violin and Small Orchestra

1977 Kryl, for Solo Trumpet

1978 Night Music, for Chamber Ensemble

Quoq, for solo flute

1979 The Idea of Order at Key West, for Soprano and Five Instruments

1980 East of the Beach, for Orchestra

1981 The Pleiades, for Solo Violin

Postcards, Six Songs for Mezzo-Soprano and Lute

1981-82 Three Ensemble Songs: Birds at Dusk, Night Sky and Before Dawn.

for Two Voices, Harpsichord and Viola de Gamba.

Auroras, for Orchestra

1983 Taffytime, for Chamber Orchestra

Mountain, for Soprano, Small Woman's Chorus and Chamber Orchestra 1984 Sierra, for Tenor and Chamber Orchestra

1984-85 Solstice, for String Quartet

1985 Dunbar's Delight, for Solo Timpani

Quintet, for Flute, Clarinet, Trumpet, Violin and Violoncello

1986 Corona, for Orchestra

Trio, for Clarinet, Harp and Violoncello

Corfu, for String Quartet

Days and Nights, for Soprano, Clarinet, Viola and Piano

1987 Some Recent Impressions for Flute, Oboe, Bassoon, Horn,

Trumpet, Percussion, two Pianos and Strings

1988 Fives for Viola, 'Cello, English Horn, Bass Clarinet and Piano.


1. See Appendix A for a list of Erickson's compositions from the mid-seventies to date. All are published by Smith Publications in Baltimore, MD.

2. Many of Erickson's pieces have drones on fifths creating a richer harmonic environment for effects of timbral fusion and stratification.

3. The brass rods are a musical instrument invented by Erickson. Essentially suspended and activated by pulling and releasing with resined gardening gloves, they produce swells of celestial brilliance with minimal onset noise. See "Instruments for Cardinitas," Source Magazine, Spring 1968, pp. 26-29.

4. The drone tonalities of most of the recent works can be summarized as follows: East of the Beach - E, Taffy Time - A and E (some C, ending on A), Auroras - D (C toward the end), Night Music - F and C,  Quintet - E, Some Recent Impressions - E (ending on A, however), Mountain - F, Garden - A, Solstice - C (also E), Corona - F (ending on A, however) Trio - C (ending on E), Sierra - E (some B) Corfu - C, E and Summer Music - C.

5. See his "The Musical System of Archytas" published in this issue.

6. Examples of Erickson's hocket textures abound in his "LOOPS" article published in this issue. The example scores for this study have not been published as a concert piece, however.

7. Erickson's interest in hocket may also stem from his work with African drumming patterns in Cradle I and II, where there is a polyphony of overlapping timbral contours. Percussion Loops, for a console of 35 percussion instruments, seems to be a stepping stone from sequences of multi-layered timbral continuity in a solo medium to the analogous effects in ensemble textures as in the LOOPS experiment published in this issue.

8. Much of Erickson's original interest in such "color" sonorities can be seen in White Lady.

Many such chords seem to recall those of White Lady where Erickson experimented with mixtures of timbre in a fixed register harmonic field.

9. From "Composing Music," Perspectives of New Music, vol. 26/2 (Summer 1988,) pg.87.

10. From "Composing Music," Perspectives of New Music, vol. 26/2 (Summer 1988,) pg.94.

11. See for example his notes to Solstice where he says "Solstice is a continuous single entity, with three main divisions, blurred here and there by steep accelerandi and ritardandi. Whatever its form may be felt to be, it is not something from history, but something formed."