Miro’s Rhetorical Question

Issie Barratt, 2008

Miro’s Rhetorical Question has been made possible by contributions to the NCWO Commissioning Fund from:
Nicky Barnes, Chris Bedford, Martin Coleman, Malcolm Entecott, Sue Franklin, Mark Heron, Josephine Lunt, Clare Moss, Catherine Parsonage, Gordon Robson, Heather Savvides, Daniel Tackley, Elaine Williams, Paul Williams, Tracy Woods

Miro’s Rhetorical Question was commissioned by the North Cheshire Wind Orchestra specifically for the concert performance on Saturday 19th April 2008. After re-orchestrating the Concerto for Chamber Jazz and Improvised Trumpet for wind orchestra and knowing what the rest of the evening’s programme contained, it felt appropriate to generate something that contrasted to the rest of the programme (hence the slightly darker, more “film noir” vibe of the piece) as well as taking the opportunity to explore the timbres of the instruments least often taking prominent roles in the regular orchestra or big band (such as contrabass clarinet, two tubas, piccolo, Eb clarinet, bowed percussion, 4th horn and 3rd clarinet).

Much of this work’s content and mood is derived from the opening theme: a melodic outcome of five sustained notes given to the lower register of the brass and woodwind instruments, with their staggered points of entry gradually spelling out a melody akin to the trumpet line in Ives’ “unanswered question” (hence the “rhetorical question” in the work’s title). This gradually generates a 5-note sustained chord that draws on the whole tone scale. The technique of a melodic shape unfolding to generate a sustained chord is prevalent throughout the piece, with each shape usually generated through the collaborative unfolding of a melodic line by a collection of the same instrument. This unfolding of shapes and their uniformity of colour reminds me greatly of the works of Miro. Hence the rhetorical question being Miro’s!

As with the trumpet concerto, Miro’s Rhetorical Question tries to free the players up from the prescriptive nature of strictly noted music, but without expecting them to suddenly become skilled and practiced improvisers. Rather, the piece enables the players to take responsibility for some of the decision making that might ordinarily have already been made by the composer and led by the conductor. This generates the possibility of each performance sounding markedly different due to the incorporation of more aleatoric ways of generating and placing the sound, such as staggered pedal notes that are governed by the physical breathing of the players, woodwind and brass “noodling” that are directed by section leaders in response to a figure played by a wind duo, and points of entry that are not dictated by the conductor.

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