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Composed: 2018; 2019

Length: c. 22 minutes

Orchestration: 4 flutes (2nd = alto flute, 3rd & 4th = piccolo), 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets (2nd = E-flat clarinet, 3rd = bass clarinet), contrabass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, 2 timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, vibraphone, 2 bass drums, marimba, 3 gongs, 5 temple blocks, maracas), harp, piano (= celesta), and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 13, 2018 with the composer conducting (Pollux, world premiere); October 18, 2019 with the composer conducting (Castor, world premiere)

About this Piece

During the composition process of Pollux, I encountered a strange problem: my material seemed to want to grow in two completely opposite directions. Finally, I realized that these very different musical identities (I had referred to them as brothers in my sketches) would not fit into one cohesive formal unit, a single piece. They simply couldn’t coexist.

This made me think of the myth of the non-identical twins Castor and Pollux who share half of their DNA, but have some extreme phenotype differences, and experience dramatically different fates.

In the Greco-Roman mythology, Pollux was immortal as he was fathered by Zeus. Castor was mortal as he was sired by Tyndareus, the king of Sparta, although his status changed post-mortem.

The mother of both was Leda, who while being already pregnant by her husband had a tryst with Zeus, who seduced her in the form of a swan. (There’s something intriguing in the idea of this famed beauty having a penchant for large waterbirds.)

My solution was to write two independent but genetically linked orchestral works. Pollux, slow and quite dark in expression, was the first of them.

Pollux has a ritualistic character, based on a mantra rhythm I heard some months ago during dinner in a restaurant in the 11th arrondissement in Paris. A post-grunge band played on the background track, and I wrote down the bass line on a paper napkin not knowing exactly what it was and who the musicians were. I couldn’t get it out of my head and decided to use a heavily modified version of it in Pollux. The pattern has been distilled to pure rhythm and slowed down to less than quarter speed of the original.

Another source of material is a chorale (here wordless) based on the first lines of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (Die Sonette an Orpheus):

Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung!

O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr.

(There rose a tree. O pure transcendence!

O Orpheus sings! O tall tree in the ear!)

I was very taken by the funny and surreal, Salvador Dali-like image of a tree growing out of the ear. The metaphor is far from obvious, but it is clear that Orpheus can unify art and nature by the sheer force of his song. Every musician I know would like to be able to do that.

Pollux oscillates between cloud-like formations (that’s where demigods dwell) and more clearly defined textures of the Orpheus music. After the final, fortissimo incarnation of the chorale, a nostalgic English horn solo brings Pollux home. At the very end, there’s an Aeolian echo (a scale used in ancient Greece); a simple chord consisting of natural harmonics in the strings. I was trying to imagine something much older than most music.

Castor is the mortal twin brother of Pollux. They share their musical DNA, but Castor introduces some completely independent material.

Castor is mostly hyperactive, noisy and extroverted. The music gesticulates wildly, often in extreme registers. Two pairs of timpani and two bass drums are the rhythmic fundament upon which freer, ornamental lines build. A light, dance-like episode develops into a manic episode dominated by a trochee figure. It burns itself out and sinks onto a low B-flat (the second lowest note on the piano).

A massive canon, fortissimo, starts in the strings and the horns, rises to the orchestra’s highest range and sinks into an abyss.

Castor can be played separately as an independent short orchestral work, or following Pollux without pause, attacca. The two pieces performed together are called Gemini, not surprisingly.

— Esa-Pekka Salonen