The French horn presents composers with an interesting challenge. Inextricably tied to the heroic aspirations of the Romantic era, it often struggles to find a range of expression that lies outside of Wagnerian fantasies. I tried taking it in a direction that overlapped with but diverged from that Romantic world in my horn concerto Revenant, a piece David Jolley premiered thirteen years ago. I don’t know how successful I was – I have mixed feelings about the results.
The obvious solution is to create a work that develops extended horn techniques into a fresh language, and some composers have found success with that approach. I don’t have any objection to going that route, but it’s an avenue that doesn’t really resonate – if you’ll pardon the pun – with me. As a teenager, I composed a number of pieces that were built on extended techniques. When I contemplate doing that kind of thing now, I have a difficult time separating the technique from the adolescent who found it fascinating. Like many other things that occupied my attention at that stage of my life – cassettes, shaggy hair, dialing telephones – composing music based on extended techniques doesn’t feel appropriate to who I am now. That’s just my journey: people who come at those techniques with a different history can do perfectly well with them.
One of the things I’ve always loved about the horn is the impression it can give of being both nearby and far away. Something about the sound has both an immediate impact and a strong aftertaste. A new work of mine for horn choir, Distance, approaches the horn from that psychoacoustic perspective. The ensemble of ten horns allows an exploration of what I think of as the depth of the horn tone — that nearness and farness. Harmonies are passed around the group, blurring into one another, briefly emerging with perfect clarity, then subsiding into amorphous texture. Powerful sforzandi are answered by faint clusters.
As I wrote on the title page:
Distance holds many fascinations: the far horizon, the nighttime sky, memories from years ago, imaginings of a future well beyond our experience.
Distance also heals, as we discover time and again.
Taken in the wrong measure, distance can be toxic, can lead to a lack of empathy or courage.
But in just the right measure, there are few things more magnificent, more inspiring.
I’m conducting the premiere of Distance this Friday night, details here. After that, I will no doubt reflect, reassess and ponder next steps.