Chamber Symphony: Obsessioneering (Symphony no. 4)

Instrumentation
Flute
Oboe
Clarinet/Bass Clarinet
Bassoon
Horn
Trumpet (in C)
Trombone
Tuba
2 Percussion
Crash cymbals, sizzle cymbal (suspended) snare drum, kick drum, three tomtoms
(high, medium, low), large bass drum, glokenspiel, vibraphone.
Harp
Piano
Strings (1-1-1-1-1 min.; 6-6-4-5-2 max.)
 Commissioned By
 Premiered By
The title of Obsessioneering is a word of my own invention loosely meaning “engaging in the willful
promotion of obsessions.” Chamber Symphony: Obsessioneering, my second chamber symphony and my
fourth overall symphony, is an orchestration/re-composition of my 2012 organ sonata. The work concerns
itself with a number of obsessive procedures, particularly in the handling of rhythm and form.
The first movement, “The Jagged Knife,” pretends to be a sonata form in which the repeat of the exposition
and the development are merged (there is no recapitulation, just a brief reprise of the opening theme in a
short coda). Rather than a true development (something I’ve tried to avoid in my music since the mid-2000s
or so), the movement’s second section is an almost verbatim, though transposed, repeat of the first section
with at anywhere from a single eighth-note to entire beats missing from each measure. The effect should be
similar to the cut-up techniques of William Burroughs, as though the composer has taken an knife to the
material in the “exposition” and pasted it together with pieces missing haphazardly.
The procedures undergone in the second movement are laid out in its title: “A Song, Interrupted, Respun,
Vanishing.” The movement begins with a simple song, first stated very sparsely by a solo oboe, who is
gradually joined by the strings until the rest of the orchestra joins in. The entrance of the rest of the
orchestra signals a key change and the song’s first interruption, a “persistent passacaglia” on a rhythmically
uneven ground bass onto which notes are added with each strain. The passacaglia itself is interrupted by a
canonic section on string harmonics, glockenspiel and vibraphone over which a solo cello begins to spin the
old song once more. The song, now respun, vanishes into the ether as a solo clarinet spins it out without
cadencing.
The finale, “Once More I Find Myself Careering Toward Inevitability,” is an obsessive reworking of material
from the first movement. It is obsessively repeated in the low brass and strings in a moderate simple time
over fast polytonal cascades in compound time patterns in the woodwinds (and, later, in the strings), which
drive the entire movement. As the melodic material dissipates, the cascades descend inexorably “into the
vortex” (marked thus in the score) in a section featuring low woodwinds, strings, piano and harp that plays
with the listener’s perception of time. As the ostinato sputters, however, it quickly finds its footing and rises
“towards apotheosis” as the cascades are transformed into a Bachian “chorale prelude” texture once again
varying material from the first movement (but, this time, in more regular rhythms and more natural
phrasing). The apotheosis is finally reached in a long tutti fanfare in the “heroic” key of E-flat but this, too, is
fleeting. In the end, we find ourselves careering toward inevitability as the ostinato from the opening
returns and descends into a unison, low d-flat.
Chamber Symphony: Obsessioneering was written in the spring of 2015 after a solo organ work,
Obsessioneering, originally written in the spring and summer of 2012. It is meant as a gift for Great Noise
Ensemble on the start of its eleventh season in September 2015 and in celebration of their first ten years
and looking forward to the next ten.

II. A Song Interrupted, Respun, Vanishing...

by Great Noise Ensemble, David Vickerman, Conductor