Pictures from the Floating World


Pictures from the Floating World

I’m on a mission now, writing a concerto for the amazing Daniel Matsukawa and the incomparable Philadelphia Orchestra with the unbelievably great Yannick Nézet-Séguin (can you tell I’m excited?). The mission is to write a bassoon concerto that captures the silvery lyrical tone of the instrument (and avoids the Mickey vs. The Brooms effect…). It is a wonderful compositional experiment for me to write this piece for this legendary orchestra to which I have ties going back to childhood…I’m calling the piece “Pictures from the Floating World.”

Danny and I have talked about this piece for a while—maybe a long while. If I think about it, he’s been asking me for a piece since we first met at Marlboro in the late 90’s. Sometimes projects like this take that kind of time; it has to be the right circumstances with everything in the right place to begin a commission. We came to that place last year.


Most composers I know will sit down with a soloist for some time to learn about the instrument, its repertoire, what works (and what doesn’t). I get asked a lot if I think about the player when I’m writing the piece, and the answer is a resounding “yes.” That’s the challenge: write something that fits like a glove for the person for whom the piece is commissioned, but make it so that lots of people can go on to play it later so that the piece has a life of its own.

Danny wanted music that lived in melodies; that brought forward the beautiful flowing bassoon lines that so many composers of past centuries have fallen in love with and wrote into their music. And this was a great prompt for me to start thinking about the idea of floating lines, which led to thoughts of water, which led to floating, which led to thoughts of the Japanese art tradition of Ukiyo-e print making (the “floating world” of our every day life), which led me to think of Debussy, who became obsessed with prints that he saw at the World Exhibition of 1881, which brought me to thinking about the Japanese and French-speaking connections of soloist and conductor, which brought me to the idea of the piece: Pictures from the Floating World.

And this is the process by which many of my pieces get written; composers find something meaningful in an initial seed or idea, and then develop that idea into something bigger. In some cases, like this one, it is built on personal associations. I am especially interested in the intersection of cultures, and Debussy’s fascination with Japanese art is likewise fascinating to me.

The piece will be in five movements, each taking from the title of one of Debussy’s “Water Pieces…”

I. Sunken Cathedral

II. Sirens

III. Sailing

IV. Sails

V. Reflections in the Water

I want each movement to flow into the next—again the idea of fluidity and floating being key. My goal is for the bassoon to sing over the whole twenty minutes of the piece, and for the orchestra to provide a sheen to its color and support to its lyricism. The bassoon is complimented by so many orchestral timbres that I can create a kaleidoscope of sound colors changing around long and lyrical solo lines.

Going back to the idea of the “Floating World,” there is something poetic for me, as we in the modern world tend to float through our days as one passes into the next, losing definition into memory (Debussy had an especially keen sense of this). This piece will be a journal, of sorts, to describe that feeling, gliding on time in a world of fleet impressions.




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