Songs of a Thousand Autumns

soprano, vin, vla, vlc, pno
(2006) 22′



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Songs of a Thousand Autumns

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6. “Things that lose by being painted”

7. “Since my heart placed me on board your drifting ship”

8. “Like a ripple that chases the slightest caress of the breeze”

Tracy Satterfield, soprano
Andres Gonzalez, violin
Suzanne LeFevre, viola
Patrick Moore, cello
Kimi Kawashima, piano

When I began composing Songs of a Thousand Autumns I had intended to set the texts of only one poet. The love poems of Ono no Komachi, a ninth-century Japanese poet, had left a powerful impression on me. Since first discovering them I had been waiting for the opportunity to put these words to music. Komachi’s poems, written in the standard five-line tanka form, are infused with a sense of longing, impermanence and, at times, despair. Such themes are typical of ancient Japanese poetry. But something was needed to balance out all this anxiety. Sei Shonagon, like Komachi, was active in the court during Japan’s Heian period, and is most famous for having written a collection of short texts called The Pillow Book. Unlike Komachi, Shonagon’s texts are often lighthearted, whimsical, and humorous, with writings titled “Oxen should have very small foreheads,” and “I cannot stand a woman who wears sleeves of unequal width.” In The Pillow Book she also compiled a number of lists, and it is these texts that I inserted between Komachi’s poems.

The music itself draws on the music which filled the halls of the court where Komachi and Shonagon were writing. This court music, called Gagaku, has been well-preserved in Japan for more than a thousand years. In this song cycle the instruments often imitate the sounds and melodies of the various instruments in a Gagaku ensemble. The piece opens with a song accompanied almost entirely by string harmonics. This pure sound is an imitation of the sho, the Japanese mouth organ that provides the harmonic backdrop in Gagaku pieces. The seventh song (“Since my heart placed me on board your drifting ship”) begins with a quotation of a melody which would be played by the fue, a wooden flute, accompanied by percussive sounds mimicking the kakko, a small drum. And in the twelfth song (“This body grown fragile”) the piano takes on the role of the koto, a plucked string instrument. This same song is a loose transcription of a Gagaku piece called Senshuraku, which would be played to mark the ending of an event. It is from this piece that this song cycle takes its title. Senshuraku, literally translated from the Japanese, means “A Thousand Autumns.”

The first performance of this piece took place on an Intermezzo Chamber Music Series Concert in Salt Lake City, with Tracy Rhodus (soprano), Dara Morales (violin), Julie Edwards (viola), Walter Haman (cello) and Kimi Kawashima (piano).

. . . Songs of a Thousand Autumns . . . is a deeply subjective cycle of great fragility which places Satterfield’s command of pitch and line against some gorgeous writing for violin, viola, cello and piano, before erupting into a restrained tsunami.

Fanfare magazine, Feb. 2017

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