In 2003 Anthony Marwood had the idea for a double concerto with strings for him (violin) and me (electric guitar) to play, after we performed Physical Property, my piece for electric guitar and string quartet. Knowing that Physical Property, written in 1992, had brought us together, I began Four Iconoclastic Episodes with the idea to check in again, 17 years later [in 2009], with the sensibility of that work. It is music driven by energy, motion, and the joy of playing. Four Iconoclastic Episodes is not as irrepressibly exuberant as the earlier work and it explores, from time to time, some darker affects, but I suppose that is to be expected since instead of being 36, I’m 53, I have a bad knee, bags under my eyes, I’ve lost several people close to me, and I often have an irresistible urge to lie down. Nevertheless, like the earlier work, Four Iconoclastic Episodes is music that lives on stage, not on the page.
Four Iconoclastic Episodes is also music that loves music. One of the great benefits of being a composer is the opportunity to interact with interesting music in a more active way than one can as a listener. Like my nine-month-old son, who consummates his relationship with interesting objects by putting them in his mouth, I like to swallow music that interests me in the hope that it will become part of me.
Each of the four episodes was written in response to some music that excited me. “Like An Animal” is an homage to the jazz/rock fusion music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra: changing meters, satanic harmonies, virtuosic interplay between electric guitar and violin.
“Salad Days” was written in response to some African popular music I heard on the radio one day. (I was in my car and was late for an important meeting so I never heard what or who it was.) The music transformed plucked instruments indigenous to Africa such as the kora (something like a Baroque lute) and mbira (thumb piano) into exotic electric guitar music. I have in turn tried to transform my recollection (based on one hearing) of the bright staccatos and plucky arpeggios of that music into something consistent with my language.
There is a song by Radiohead called Amnesiac that begins with seemingly arrhythmic piano chords. As the other instruments enter the context is clarified and the seemingly offbeat chords seem to “swing” comfortably in that meter. “Lost in Splendor” is similarly inscrutable at the outset and then becomes clarified by the context. In this case the same rhythm can be interpreted in a couple of different meters and tempos. Technically speaking, “Lost in Splendor” is a chaconne in that there is a repeating pattern that runs continuously throughout the episode. However, the subtle shifts and nuances of this multi-valent rhythm slip into the background to become a fragile and restless accompaniment for a tender song without words. I doubt that the obsessive cyclical nature of the chaconne would emerge on a first or second hearing.
“Destiny,” on the other hand, puts its obsessive pattern front and center, bar by bar throughout. There is something of a big slow 12/8 Chicago blues feel to the groove, but the way the harmony moves in a continuous one-way journey through this unchanging rhythm is in response to some of Schubert’s late chamber music that I have encountered in my “day job” teaching at Princeton University.
Each of the four episodes has its own limited material and distinct personality and there is nothing shared between them except of course my sensibility with regard to how music should go. Ultimately they belong together in my mind because the particular characters and energy flows balance and contrast one another to create an odd but intrinsically expressive shape. I must say that throughout work on the piece I was drawn to the archetype of the four seasons: Winter/“Like An Animal” – stormy, harsh, merciless; Spring/“Salad Days” – playful, optimistic, innocent; Summer/“Lost in Splendor” – warm, lush; and Autumn/“Destiny” – bittersweet.
— Steven Mackey