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Homunculus is a short (circa 15 minutes) work for string quartet, which I wrote during the autumn months of 2007 for the Johannes Quartet. I wanted to compose a piece that would be very compact in form and duration, but still contain many different characters and textures. In other words, a little piece that behaves like a big piece.
In Homunculus the four main characters (in order of appearance) are “Scherzo,” irregularly pulsating, jagged music; “Slow movement,” continuous metamorphosis of an easily identifiable slow phrase; “Main movement,” intricate mid-tempo web of four voices densely woven together; and “Chorale,” a static, somewhat melancholy progression of chords. These characters, which in a traditional string quartet would each form their own movement, are here interrupted by each other, and interspersed throughout the single movement of Homunculus. They keep developing and changing throughout the piece however, so when a character reappears it is rarely, if ever, an exact repetition of a previous appearance.
At the end the “Scherzo” music brings the piece to a violent climax on a C-major chord in an impossibly high register followed by a long glissando down. All the other characters appear one more time. Homunculus ends with a prolonged chorale, which in my ears sounds somewhat sad and deeply nostalgic.
The title of the piece refers to the arcane spermists’ theory, which held that the sperm was in fact a “little man” (homunculus) that was placed inside a woman for growth into a child. This seemed to them to neatly explain many of the mysteries of conception.
I decided to call my piece Homunculus despite the obvious weaknesses of the 17th-century theory, as my goal was to write a small scale piece that would nevertheless contain all the elements of a “fully grown” string quartet.
– Esa-Pekka Salonen