Squall: Program notes

Long before film composers underscored dramatic action, traditional opera and concert composers created music with specific sound effects content. “He gave them Hailstones” from Handel’s Israel in Egypt is a prime early example of the progressively furious activity of the storm, conjured up by repeated notes in the orchestra as a prelude to the declamation of the chorus. Beethoven’s storm in the Pastorale Symphony uses a similar technique; and, the rain storm itself is a structural upbeat to the final theme of clearing turbulence. These examples of program music make use of the kind of referential gestures that later become the primary tools for creating the cinematic intensity of a Star Wars.

The primary advantage of programatic musical materials is that they thrusst us immediately into a specific action, even before any kind of abstract musical development occurs. Witness the opening of Verdi’s Otello, which begins with a storm at sea, the tempestuous symbol of the protagonists uncontrolled rage which is the focal point of the tragedy. This device in a few seconds concentrates the image of Otello, himself, a device that is absent in the Shakespeare original. This kind of music creates a “point of recognition” which trumps the logical thought process and delivers an instantaneous emotional salvo.

Squall is a concise, orchestral tone poem which tries to convey the disturbingly unpredictable assault by a storm at sea. Although musical materials occur in the structure to create balance in the abstract, the surface effect should be to startle and shift the listener’s sense of time. Violent natural phenomena, like hurricanes and earthquakes, consume us because we don’t know their strength or duration. The great earthquake in Los Angeles in 1994 was reported with remarkable inaccuracy at first, because no person who experienced it could be sure how long the shaking went on. Real time was, thus, converted to the relative time of subjective perception. This process, usually in more benign terms, is exactly what all good music does to the listener, so the devices in program music easily complement the compositional process. An added benefit is that the musical foreground attains a dual identity: in addition to the thematic contour, the material acquires a more elemental association with natural familiarity. For example, the descriptive music in Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote in which the Knight Errant is tilting at windmills leaves little to the imagination in it blustery effects, but it also represents a harmonic variation of the original theme.

Derived from the Third Movement of Octet-Windstorm, Squall makes use of that composition’s thematic framework as the basis of its pacing. Having the resources of the full orchestra allows for a more pervasive and public rendition of the storm, a contrast to the earlier work’s chamber-music format. I have imposed one limitation in the use of a minimal amount of percussion, thereby dispensing with “sound effects” which hinder the sense of dreamlike unreality that I want to convey in the brief time of the piece.

Los Angeles, November, 2006.