Stratigraphy

The branch of geology concerned with the order and relative position of strata and their relationship to the geological time scale.

That’s the definition offered by the dictionary on my Mac’s dashboard. Despite a somewhat scientific aura that recalls titles of modernist pieces (such titles go back to Varese, I guess, and seem a little old-fashioned these days), I like the term “stratigraphy” as the title for my current project, a work for the Prism Saxophone Quartet and pianist Marilyn Nonken. The premiere will be at Penn on Saturday, March 19. I came across the word in Marilyn’s book, The Spectral Piano, where she uses it to describe the layering strategies employed in works by spectralist composers like Murail and Dufourt. While I don’t think of my piece as spectralist, I am concerned in this new piece with creating contrapuntal structures where the component parts are a little more differentiated than usual, either by rhythmic texture or harmonic process or both. Of course there are also places in the piece where the five instruments function as a single unit, but several spots emphasize contrasting elements. Here’s a fragment from the first movement as an example – just a draft, mind you (notation sounds as written):

stratig excerpt

The “rock layers” here are more juxtaposed than layered (though there is obviously a registral layering going on), but later in the movement things will start happening simultaneously.

The plan is to have a number of short movements exploring a variety of strategies. The players want their parts soon; better get back to work.

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