Seraphim and Cherubim for Flute Choir: Notes

When is tonal music not hopelessly old fashioned?

Seraphim and Cherubim has had an exceptionally long gestation period, the original version having been completed in 1991 and unperformed in that form. In addition to substantial reworking of most of the material, the complement of flutes was shifted from 3 piccolos, 3 flutes, 3 alto flutes to 3 piccolos, 4 flutes, 2 alto flutes, a move to preserve the four-part identity of the central group. Since it was decided at the outset that there would be no doubling, but rather each player would retain the same instrument throughout, this decision took on global significance. Since the piece is intended to convey a visual image of the choirs of angels in defense of the heavenly gates, in a kind of elongated El Greco universe ( like the angels in The Baptism of Christ of 1577), integration of the foregrounds and their subsequent dissolution demanded a continuous timbral consistency.

Even the casual listener will notice immediately that this music is made from traditional tonal materials, while not quotations from any other composer, that are easily perceived and which liberate the piece from any modern moniker. This decision, which has been made in the majority of my works of the last decade, has caused a lot of misunderstanding among other composers, who are quick to dismiss the pieces as superficial. To my mind, the potential banality which can result from the use of tonality (except in minimalist and collage pieces) occurs because the composer has chosen to bring along tonal EXPECTATIONS with the materials, thus removing them from any possibility of contemporary relevance. The accessible musical idea then becomes a cliche and can never develop its own identity.

Why, then would I risk such derision and dismissal? The answer lies in my observation that almost no modern musical works of the last generation have entered the repertoire, because nobody can remember the foreground ideas. Also, the ongoing disconnect between classical and popular cultures, a phenomenon peculiar only to the last few decades, causes me to look askance at the usual panoply of musical noisemakers. Lastly, originality is often confused with novelty by contemporary critics (today’s fashion always seems to become yesterday’s sack dress or Nehru jacket). To return to my main point: assuming that music moves through time with alternating passages of tension and repose, expectation to fulfillment, the seduction of a good piece primarily relies on the composer’s skill in drawing in the listener through the manipulation of the (in this case, easily perceived) themes. Real development (something all but abandoned by minimalist composers) occurs when the roles of the materials change from foreground to background and when the temporal alignments of the layers shift and shape the total texture. The piece is intended to be a real musical canvas.

One last caveat to the listener: the use of stylistically familiar materials is intended to provide a referential element, which itself is a structural device, but which integrates into a fully realized contemporary tapestry. I have no desire to write music at a different time in history, but I intend to use the palette of history, which seems so right at this particular time in the 21st century.
The only thing new in the world is the history that we don't know. Harry S. Truman