Totentanz (2018), arr. for violin, cello, and piano

Trio Casals: Sylvia Ahramjian, violin; Ovidiu Marinescu, cello; Anna Kislitsyna, piano.
Navona Records

Program Note

The initial inspiration for Totentanz came from the numerous bleak reports of overpopulation on the earth causing pollution, the number of endangered animals, etc. I started to think about the fact that I go about my day with little to no thought about what is happening, and started to imagine the effects of everything as time moves forward. This made me think about the Totentanz traditions from the medieval era and the depiction of the universalityof death. I then thought of other depictions of death: from Pieter Brueghel’s The Triumph of Death and Hans Holbein’s woodcuts to the various musical depictions. I then decided to write a piece that started out as playfully as possible only to slowly but violently destroy all the processes I had set up.

The first step in composing Totentanz was to harmonize the Dies irae chant. I took the first eight pitches of the chant and harmonized each pitch so that I ended up with eight different triads. I then wrote out an eight-note matrix based on the roots of each triad. Around the time I started to compose this piece, I had read about tesseracts, and noticed that the Schläfli symbols used to define various tesseracts were very similar to the asymmetric meters I like to use in my music. I was simultaneously fascinated by prime reciprocal magic squares, particularly the cyclic permutations of six digits that I saw for 1/7. I applied six of the Schläfli symbols to each of the numbers in the magic square to make a matrix for time signatures. Once this was done, I simply went through both the pitch and time signature matrixes by spiraling from one corner of the matrix to the center until I used either all the pitches or all the time signatures for each section.

As I approached the climax, however, I began to break apart the patterns I set up while gradually and subtly introducing the actual Dies irae chant. At the climax, both the rhythmic elements and the pitches become obsolete to the point of chaos. The piece ends bleakly as the music dies away in the distance.

Totentanz was commissioned and written for Molly Barth, Jeffrey Zeigler, and David Riley.This version, for violin, cello, and pinao was written for Trio Casals.

The piece lasts about 7 minutes.