Strand Development in Driftwood on Sand and its antecedents

(2nd main movement)

The second of the two main movements in my string quartet Driftwood on Sand unfolds its structure according to a principle whose roots reach far back into my own development. This is the practice of opening a movement with the fragmentary presentation of (often elliptical) sculptural ideas before returning to them in a random sequence of developments, each of which progresses - strands in a narrative that are intertwined and hence still, as at the opening, offering a fragmented progression. One such fragment may be quickly discarded from the process, while another may grow from insignificant beginnings so as to dominate.

During the late 1980s I sought to escape from a reliance on developmental traditions with the help of random sequences that I derived from Balinese gamelan melody: instead of using these melodies themselves, I encoded their limited pitch-cycles into number sequences and employed these repetitions as formal maps, allocating a composed idea or fragment to each quantity in the sequence. For example, in each of the third and fourth pieces of Das Leonora Notenbuch for piano solo (1988) there are five ideas – some as brief as a single arpeggiated chord, others more expansive – which return in rotation, and undergoing continuous metamorphosis of detail, according to the sequence of the five quantities representing the ordering of the five pitches of the Balinese melody [e.g. 1-2-1-3-4-5-3-1-3 etc]. The overall aim in this process was, of course, nothing to do with Balinese music specifically, but sought to encircle the elements of a musical situation so that, on one hand, they would unify it while, on the other, their erratic behaviour, and expansion, would maintain a dynamic, exploratory element through the narrative. My motivation was thus to harness material such as Balinese melody and (in other works of that time) Blues harmonies not for matters of style but for their enviably defined character; for it is these hermetic sets of related materials (such as limited-pitch melodies or chord-sequences) that serve to define their sharply focused musical space. As a young composer exploring a personal language, I envied this definition, and set about systematizing its exploration through sequences such as these.

By the time of Driftwood on Sand in 2001 such methodical rotations had long given way to intuitive manipulations, but the movement headed volante in other respects unfolds by the very same principle. A set of six fragments is introduced to begin, a set that is as disparate as possible: the fragments occur at bars 1, 3, 5, 8, 9 and 13. The first, second and sixth are shown below:

Thereafter (that is, from bar 19), the following fragments - nos 1, 6 (bar 29), 5 (bar 33), 3 (bar 60), 5 again (bar 64) and 2 (bar 87) – return, in the guise of progressive expansions. When this entire ‘exhibition’ of musical sculptures is complete, a central section (based upon material from the main slow movement) establishes a contrasting stability of texture and material. At its climax (bar 178), however, the expansion of fragments resumes.

This expansion process is in some instances only a modest recapitulation – for example the rescoring of fragment 3’s interlocking pizz/arco lines at bar 60 – while other fragments burgeon into full sections . The clearest of these major expansions is to fragment 6 (Ex C above), which becomes the coda of the movement in a greatly expanded form from bar 220 to the end.

c Piers Hellawell 2019