Sixty Cycles

2015 | for violoncello solo


[ score | recording ]

I originally planned Sixty Cycles to celebrate a friend’s sixtieth birthday. Its basic structure was born of my thinking about life’s phases and the frequent disjuncture between experienced time and the temporal grids we use to organize our lives (years, months, days…). Over the course of the piece, several different, albeit not equally distinctive, musical materials are channeled through 60 “phrases” of equal length. These structural zones are, with a single exception, each ten beats long (the fixed temporal grid), but they vary in perceived and often clock duration through tempo fluctuations and according to the activity and density of the materials that “inhabit” them.

            Each phrase has a focal note that is a component of the harmonic series of a 60 Hz (i.e., 60 cycle) fundamental. The cello’s lowest string is tuned to this low B¼-flat. The partials of the series—often shifted in register out of necessity—are presented in (nearly) linear descending order. No attempt is made to reference the familiar sound of 60-cycle electrical hum.

            The cello part requires extremely subtle control and virtuosity. The performer explores and struggles with the instrument as if trying to make sense of its capacities, seeking ­– or perhaps trying to regain? – the ability to play with conventional beauty, and uncovering other beauties in the process. In the first half of the piece, for example, a substantial amount of the material is fingered not only in the instrument’s highest, less-exploited reaches, but also often on the “wrong” side of the bow. Similar extensions of traditional sound production arise through instability/variability in the way the bow contacts the string, widespread use of left-hand pizzicato, and the significant presence of high harmonics and multiphonics, sound objects akin to woodwind multiphonics that consist of simultaneously produced harmonics on a single string.

            This piece was composed for Kevin McFarland with the generous support of the Isabelle Zogheb Foundation in Berne, Switzerland. Tyler J. Borden gave the first complete performance in January 2017. It is gratefully dedicated to one of my earliest mentors, the Swiss composer, pianist, conductor, teacher and new music champion, Jürg Wyttenbach.