Beginning about 1930, Paul Klee, most musical of painters, began using the term "polyphonic painting" to describe the layering of various forms and colors to produce visual compositions of many "voices." My favorites among these paintings are those using a sort of pointillist or mosaic approach, in which grids of dense dots or squares in contrasting colors create a wonderfully rich, luminous effect. The magnum opus among these works is the 1932 Ad Parnassum, which overlays glowing fields of colored dots with a few strong, simple shapes: a mountain peak, a sun, fragments of temple architecture. Klee borrowed his title from Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus, 1725) by J.J. Fux, a manual of polyphonic technique that nurtured generations of musicians. I borrowed my title from Klee’s painting.
My composition is not so much a translation of pictorial elements from Klee’s Ad Parnassum as an attempt to think through some of its basic principles in my own, purely musical terms. These principles include the play of light and shadow, the contrast between activity and repose, and a tension between Klee’s cool blues and warm oranges so engrossing that it results, paradoxically, in profound harmony. I have been inspired, too, by questions implicit in the Klee painting: what is figure, what is ground? how can the same element be first one, then the other, or even both at once? Above all, I have tried to learn from Klee how a busy surface, dense with small details, can cohere to produce large, clear shapes, simple yet powerful. This seems to me as valuable an aim in music as it is in art.
My Ad Parnassum was composed to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Boston Musica Viva, and it was premiered by that ensemble under Richard Pittman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 16, 1998.
Steven Stucky was the Philharmonic's longtime New Music Advisor.