ensemble violin and piano
duration 9 minutes
written fall 2015
written for Yevgeny Kutik
commissioned by The Ferris-Burtis Music Foundation, Merwin Geffen, M.D. and Norman Solomon, M.D., and Carol Whitcomb
premièred January 17, 2016, The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
published by Andres & Sons Bakery
Words Fail is a song without words for violin and piano. My relationship to music with words has sometimes been ambivalent; I’m not a singer, so I’m not one of those people for whom words naturally latch onto an existing melody. When I’m listening to a singer, I’m prioritizing the lyrics least of all—it’s almost too much data for me to process simultaneously. And that’s assuming I’d be able to understand them in the first place, since they’re so often obscured by language, diction, or setting.
So a ‘song without words’ is perhaps the most natural state of things for me. And it sounds like an easy assignment, too—less work for everyone. But in this case I tried to write something that not only lacked words, but obviated them. “Words fail” is a cliché, and it’s probably more often the case that we merely fail to find the right words. But they do fail sometimes, and the abstraction of music can help seal up the damage.
The violin is one of the most “vocal” of instruments, but it’s a kind of super-voice, capable of articulating phrases and executing figurations that would leave a singer literally breathless. My violin-song plays to these strengths beginning with a series of ever-lengthening downward laments (in iambic hexameter, to continue the speech-metaphor). All the melodies in the piece are built on this initial melody, from the same two-note iambs; the piece is almost entirely isorhythmic, short-long, short-long.
As these lamenting phrases progress, they expand in register, complexity, and volume, shadowed and intensified by overlapping canons in the piano. After reaching a dramatic peak, this section is echoed and distorted with diffuse harmonies. Soon, the violin impulsively flips the pattern, spawning a rising melody in the piano, with lurching accompaniment. A countermelody in sixths soars above it in the violin; all of this builds to another loud, high peak, launching a stretto version of the opening melody. As momentum wanes, the song recedes into an atomized landscape of harmonics and arpeggios.