Dalbavie is also interested in early music. In the Renaissance period, tactus was the Latin term for the ‘beat’ in music, and at least theoretically linked to the human pulse. Dalbavie’s 1996 nonet (string quintet, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and piano – the Schubert Octet plus piano) explores the generative potential of pulse like a dynamic musical lab experiment, subdividing the beat in every possible way, shifting and superimposing meters.
The first of the five movements might almost be a draft for a section of Axiom, beginning as it does from unison Ds and expanding into swirling arpeggios and scales suggesting (like Axiom) Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition. It too returns to its point of origin in the ticking of plucked Ds, subtly shaded with a polytonal chord in the piano, which also prepares the second movement, with its pitch center on E. This movement seems to attempt to locate pulse within stasis, the strings again setting the sonic stage. After a central climax, the music contracts to E, blurred by the piano’s E/E-flat fluttering.
The strings launch the center movement, but as a febrile, searching scherzo that only gradually finds its way to unison repose on Bs. It evaporates in a little coda, glissandos becoming chromatic scales ascending to oblivion. The fourth movement is another one of (initially) slow pulse, beautifully colored with overlapping chords most suggestive of spectral harmony, and closing (on D) with clear references to the end of the second movement. The finale brings it all together, ringing changes on all the developments of pitch and duration from the previous movements, exploding this time from a unison E.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.