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Composed: 2023

Length: c. 15 minutes

About this Piece

In sociologist Mildred Parten Newhall’s theory of the six stages of child’s play, she observed and categorized the social behavior of children aged 2–5 into six prevalent types—unoccupied, solitary, onlooker, parallel, associative, and cooperative—occurring in roughly that order of a child’s development. When I began writing this piece, I was fascinated with how my then three-year-old daughter was opening to the world and engaging with her fellow little humans. Initially, still very much in the solitary/onlooker stages, she would cautiously proceed to “parallel play” with her classmates and friends through observation and mimicry, blissfully doing or making something side-by-side without so much as a word exchanged or presence acknowledged. 

For some reason, the possibility of mirroring these types of activities in a large ensemble work ignited the imagination. Such parallels already frequently exist in music: an instrument will take the lead while others follow, then disappear completely into independent textures, only to have another group emerge into the foreground. Or two instruments might be playing a simultaneous melody, unified by a common contour or goal, but each with its own embellished identity, either oblivious to or in dialogue with the other. 

The 18-person ensemble in Parallel Play is divided up into seven duos, a harp-piano-percussion trio that is often similar in function, and the organ, which dialogues equally with everyone. The duo pairs often share common traits, even if they aren’t from the same musical family, i.e., clarinet with viola, or (contra)bassoon with contrabass. While the duos often interact amongst themselves, occasionally forming meta-instruments, they also influence and even cooperate with other pairs. This is especially true in the brash fanfares and coordinated attacks of the opening movement (“Doubling Up”) or in the delicate back-and-forth exchanges of the second (“Imitation Points”). The piece is orchestrated in such a way as to give a sense of sound traveling in space: the third movement—“Game of Pairs, Distanced”—is all about a highly choreographed exchange between the pairs, while the fifth movement (“Associative Play”) creates fresh pairings across groups in a newly socially engaged way. By this point in the piece, six players have moved to offstage positions, setting the stage for the final movement, “Cooperative Play (Rings Around the Rosie),” a highly coordinated group activity. In this case, the game involves a circular movement of sound in constantly swirling motion, and the final goal of striving for something that always appears just out of reach. 

Parallel Play is dedicated to John Adams, with gratitude for his support of this and so many other new works, and to my daughter Mirabel, with whom I’ve now joyously observed every stage of play. —Anthony Cheung, February 2023