Performed by the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne with Christopher Trapani, electric guitar; Lorraine Vaillancourt, conductor
Sparrow Episodes unfolds like a musical comic book, a series of consecutive snapshots. Musical material varies wildly from frame to frame, but together the episodes trace a single relentless forward narrative. Ideas are introduced and explored for very small spans of time (20 to 30 seconds on average); then, before they have a chance to develop, they are pushed aside to make way for the next idea. This pattern continues for the first three-quarters of the piece, until the guitarist activates an 8-second delay loop for the final two minutes. Recall is avoided for most of the piece and then forcibly imposed at the end. Memory has a rather untraditional and dysfunctional role as a result, as if the saturated world of the opening is viewed in distant retrospect at the conclusion.
Two common threads recur throughout the piece. The first is a chord progression borrowed from the song Sparrow by Myshkin (a songwriter and singer friend from my high school days in New Orleans), the obscure departure point for this project, chosen simply because of its strong resonance in my memory. The second is the sound of the electric guitar––my guitar, which I had played through a cheap amp in the small apartment in Paris where I composed the piece in the summer of 2006. Its rough, dirty sound is integrated both literally, by placing a guitar amidst the ensemble, and figuratively, by coloring the vocabulary of gestures and harmony of all the instruments. The harmonic compass of Sparrow Episodes is wide, ranging from tonal to spectral harmonies derived from the amplifier's ring modulation; and part of my aim is to force a dialogue between these potentially contradictory systems of thinking.
The piece is scored for 16 players (15 acoustic instruments and electric guitar, a part intended to be performed by the composer), and the musicians are separated onstage into four quartets: strings in front, woodwinds on the left, brass and bassoon on the right, and the piano, percussion, guitar, and an amplified contrabass in the rear.