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Duration: 15 minutes
Instrumentation: flute ( = piccolo), clarinet ( = bass clarinet), horn, trumpet, bass trombone, percussion, piano, and double bass
First Performance: July 1, 1990, Music of Our Time, Indiana University, Harvey Sollberger, conducting
First Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group performance: April 26, 1993, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting
Dionysus came about by virtue of a curious intersection of factors, considerations as apparently remote as the late work of Euripides and the exploration of chaos theory. As my title indicates, the Greek master was primary. In his introduction to the University of Chicago edition of The Bacchae, William Arrowsmith observes: "the personified necessities of the Euripidean stage are not mere naturalistic psychological symbols. They are precisely daimones, the great powers that stalk the world ... the source of man's very condition, the necessities which determine his life." Already captivated by a collaborative theatrical project with Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki, my attention was further concentrated by Arrowsmith's perspective, and I considered anew not only the contradictory faces of Dionysus (god - man, nourish - destroyer) but the underlying forces, the daimones, that his multivalent presence in The Bacchae manifests. It was evident that there were both elevated and savage, vulnerable and implacable aspects to Euripides' manifestation. I decided to seek a musical abstraction and restatement of these dynamic strata, seeing in the sheer forces between them the source of the drama's power.
In another sector of my life, there was simultaneously a growing interest in the possible applicability to music of the non-linear world of "chaos," a word that also has its roots in Greece, but has become the focus of widespread interest among scientists. It promises increasing comprehension of what had seemed the intractably unpredictable behaviors of certain natural phenomena: the fluttering of a flag, the path of a fly, the fluctuations of weather.
Dionysus is an octet which pits a group including piccolo, clarinet, percussion, and contrabass against another comprising trumpet, horn, bass trombone, and piano. There are two harmonic strata to which the instrumental groups are assigned, and the piece is a relentless exploration of the interplay between these two strata. The alternation of harmonic layers becomes gradually more rapid until slightly after the midpoint when it achieves a regular 4 against 5. At this point, the texture shifts from chordal to individual attacks and begins to temporally expand.
The formal shape of the whole fifteen minutes includes provision for four asymmetrical appearances of solo material in the piccolo and trumpet parts. These, like the intractable alterations of the two harmonic worlds, tend toward the extreme. The work's proportions derive from the Hénon attractor, one of the more interesting non-linear systems that have come to light in chaos theory. This composition involves, as does much of my work, a blend of metaphor and pragmatics.
Dionysus was commissioned by Indiana University and premièred on Music of Our Time by the New Music Ensemble, Harvey Sollberger, conductor, July 1, 1990.
- Roger Reynolds