Length: c. 10 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (2nd & 3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes (3rd = English horn), 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (2 bass drums, chimes, cymbals, floor toms, glockenspiel, guiro, marimba, snare drum, tam-tam, temple blocks, vibraphone, whip, xylophone), harp, piano, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (world premiere)
Blow bright takes its title from the final lines of Philip Larkin’s poem “Night-Music.” Bjarnason has set the whole poem as a song for voice and small ensemble, but that version has little in common with his new orchestral piece, other than some similarity of atmosphere in the haunted string section of Blow bright.
“The relationship is actually quite ambiguous,” Bjarnason says. “I chose this title because I feel it evokes the right feeling and because that line is beautiful:
Blow bright, blow bright
the coal of this unquickened world.
“I have already set the poem of Larkin, from which that line comes, to music. But this piece doesn’t have much to do with the poem or that setting. I took that line away from it and thought about it separately. I also thought about many other things and this piece is written in a very free flowing and instinctive way. It’s actually very close to being pure abstract music.
“But one of the things I thought about was the ocean and, more specifically, seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time and realizing how incredibly different it was to the Atlantic Ocean, which is what I have known my whole life. The brightness and energy and the way it radiates is so powerful and beautiful. I tried to put some of that into the music and Blow bright can also refer to that in some ways.”
Brightness and energy are indeed very present here. It is almost as if the orchestra takes the title as a command. It begins with a restless shimmer, urged forward persistently by the marimba, vibes, and piano, before finding a mysterious lull in music for divided strings.
“Everything that has to do with our internal world and the subconscious has always been very interesting to me. I have always been interested in the edge between these two worlds; the waking ‘reality’ and the world we each carry within ourselves. Maybe this translates into my fascination with extreme contrasts,” Bjarnason suggests.
Mystery remains, but the power of the ocean also asserts itself, in brass chorales and striking orchestral effects that are an organic part of the piece. Bjarnason has created techniques that embody electronic reverb, delay, distortion, and filter effects in the acoustical web with stunning impact, extending and intensifying timbral expression.
“I actually approach it from a kind of ‘studio’ standpoint and a lot of my inspiration for sounds comes from electronic effects as well as from the instruments themselves,” the composer says. “I often think about it as creating pseudo acoustics for the orchestra where it sounds like it has a massive reverb even if it was playing in a rather dry space. So the reverb comes from within the orchestra, for example by writing divisi parts that move at separate speeds, etc. But it becomes more than an ‘effect,’ it becomes an integrated part of the composition process.”
— John Henken