Grade level: 4
Commission info: Edina High School (MN), Paul Kile, conductor
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It’s winter. Think of millions of starlings, coming together at dusk to find a warm place to settle for the night. At times the sky can turn black with the flock coming together, at other times the color and shape of the murmuration shifts and bends and moves and dances in the sky. Think of the collective whole and of the individual bird. How does that translate to music? I found that it does so very fruitfully, naturally, and beautifully.
The beginning the piece really represents the totality of that flock. The sum total of millions of individual things. The material that the piano (four hands), clarinets, oboe, alto and tenor saxophones, trumpets, part of the french horn section and the non-pitched metallic percussion present in a minimalist style should be delivered in an energetic, rhythmic fashion that reflects the asymmetric meter. Our low voices add these deep, intense and sonorous moments that perhaps darken the sky with sturdy and powerful presence. The upper woodwinds and the metallic pitched percussion sounds punctuate the music with melodic cells that inform the whole piece. Those melodic cells and the low chords are actually derived from the first movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, which evokes the forest and bird calls and other images of nature.
After we transition away from this first musical portrait of a murmuration, we find ourselves in a fugue in the style of J.S. Bach. Now I ask you to think of the individual bird - and then a second bird. This is the subject and answer in the fugue. How do those melodic lines relate to each other? How do they come together? How do they diverge? As the fugue develops, modulating to different key areas and inviting other instruments into the counterpoint, how does that impact the relationship of these birds to one another. After some exploring, we all of a sudden hear Mahler’s theme set in a way that he set it in his Symphony, but only for a brief phrase. Perhaps then the listener will realize that the fugue subject was Mahler’s theme all along, just in a minor key.
Then we arrive at another transitional moment in the piece. Echoes of Hindemith’s March from his Symphonic Metamorphosis and then chromatic transitional ideas borrowed again from the Mahler, usher us into the third distinct musical representation of a murmuration. This one is bold, full voiced, and joyous! There are strains when the music dances together and there are strains where the band truly needs to sing through their instruments together. The moment when the music transitions unexpectedly from Eb major to Ab major - particularly the gap of silence (don’t play there) - should launch the piece into its ending.
As a murmuration, I did feel like the piece needed to “settle” at the end. That being said, when we return to the 5/4 from the opening, we harken back to similar musical ideas as the beginning, but this time we are solidly in Ab Major. The trumpets and mallets provide rhythmic and melodic vitality that needs to grab the attention of the listener and help give a final emotional release to the music. Then we finally land together and hear one more statement of that Mahler tune in the ascending long notes that lead us to the final chord.
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