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Program Note | Andrew McIntosh: The Symmetry Etudes

Jim Sullivan and Brian Walsh are two very good friends of mine and we have been playing music together for 5 or 6 years in various contexts. They are both phenomenal musicians and are the reason that these crazy pieces (the Symmetry Etudes) exist. They often meet with each other once a week or so to practice tuning and other kinds of technical clarinet things and about four years ago I had the good fortune to be invited to a number of these meetings, at which we started to explore microtonal tunings. They suggested I write some kind of study or technical exercise to help with understanding just intonation, which instead turned into a set of 8 complete pieces of music that took me 3 years to write. It is not a single piece with movements, but rather a kind of book of self-contained individual pieces – although there is a definite development throughout the book.


The microtonal sonorities start out fairly simple (unisons/octaves in the first one, Pythagorean tuning in the second, just thirds/sixths in the third, and so on) increasing in complexity and sometimes also creating situations in which the “just” sounds become corrupted (such as in Etude I by the end). Also very present in the pieces is my fascination with some of the more orderly facets of the natural world, so the forms and harmonic constructs of the pieces are often very geometric or symmetrical in some way. For instance, in Etude I the rhythmic language of the entire piece is exactly the same backwards and forwards, or in Etude III all of the notes in any given harmony are not only identical when inverted but are also always equidistant from C#, or in Etude IV (my personal favorite) the symmetry is reflected in time as each phrase goes out of phase with itself, or in Etude VIII I wrote the piece up to the middle point relatively intuitively and then attempted to write it from that point on in reverse from memory without referencing my original work (allowing some artistic liberty, of course).


All of these forms and constructs, however, are merely a means to an end. Mostly I was inspired by how beautifully Jim and Brian play and I felt that my job as a composer was simply to create little sound-worlds that frame their wonderful playing in different ways. At the forefront of my imagination when writing the pieces was always the exquisite nuance and richness that both musicians bring to everything they play. I can’t thank them enough for their incredible patience, skill, and encouragement in both the creation and rehearsal of these very difficult pieces.


I have wanted to write a piece for Ashley Walters for years, since we perform together quite frequently in the Formalist Quartet and also in other chamber music situations, such as in wild Up. This piece started last year as a piece for solo viola that I was asked to write, but as I was working on it I came to the realization that what I was writing would actually work just as well, or even better, as a cello piece. Once I finished the viola solo (A Secular Calvinist Creed) I immediately wrote this second version of it (Another Secular Calvinist Creed), which is dedicated to Ashley. The title is a somewhat personal reference, but I feel that much of my music lately, and this piece in particular, has had a strong influence from the way of looking at the world that I was presented with as a child growing up in the desert on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. For instance: a commitment to an idealistic and abstract perfection, a belief in human fallibility, a love of community, a fascination with nature and that which is vast and unknowable yet seemingly ordered – also, a belief that the world in which we live does not fundamentally change much over time. In Another Secular Calvinist Creed, the cello is re-tuned in a just tuning based on 11th partials, but the intervals are used in such a way that the harmonic function is irrelevant. However, order and wonder prevail in the end.


– Andrew McIntosh

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