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Air of a D String

  • Paul Engle
  • 2020
  • Sextet

“The title of my berimbau sextet, “Air of the D String” is, of course, a reference to “Air on the G string” the popular reduction of Bach’s third orchestral suite whose arranger asked the violinist to intone the melody on only one string. That fact, in my mind, made for an apt point of departure for a new work for Arcomusical’s ensemble of monochords!

In my piece, every note can be defined as a natural overtone of a phantom D fundamental, represented by the caxixi rattle that I employ like a toneless gong. This unifying idea is inspired by Gregory Beyer’s field work studying berimbau that lead to Arcomusical’s practice of dividing the two segments of the wire created by the bridge using low integer ratios.

In earlier drafts, in certain moments I employed a concept stolen from James Tenney’s “Septet” in which rhythmic periodicity reflects the ratios of the present pitches. I realized I could keep this consistent and expand on it by speeding up or slowing down the tempo in the same proportional relationship to the various fractal pitch subsets to which I harmonically modulate throughout the work, have in common with D.

The result is a challenging piece that asks a lot of these musicians individually and as an ensemble. With every new draft, I was nervous their response would be “Paul, this is too complicated, you are asking us to do too much, write us a different piece. But that never happened. The members of Arcomusical kept their focus always on solutions and on their commitment to making the music work. Their residency was so extensive and interactive and that was integral to the development of this piece. I feel really lucky to have worked with such an open, ambitious, and talented ensemble.” – Paul Engle

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