Invisible Cities

Variations

Stanley Walden

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Publisher: Theodore Presser Company
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Quick Overview

The books of Italo Calvino were first recommended to me by the late musicologist Raymond Ostrowski. I have always been attracted to fabulist art, but this was material of astonishing content. Upon reading "Invisible Cities", I had a profound reaction ? completely inchoate ? to what I found to be the supremely musical organization of the text. The book is constructed as a series of dialogues between Marco Polo and the Khan, wherein Polo describes various cities (divided into groupings of Cities of Desire, Cities of Memory, Thin Cities, etc.) ? all imaginary ? within his realm, which the Khan has never visited. All musical works are in a sense ?invisible cities,? constructed along architectonic, principles. Also, the performance of music is a ?telling? of a very high order, and as epigraph to the score I have quoted Calvino to the effect that ?the tale is commanded not by the voice, but rather by the ear.?

My uniformed response to the text remained just that until the invitation to write a piece for the winds and percussion of The Philadelphia Orchestra was tendered. The method of transforming the literary conceit into a musical reality stymied me for quite a long time. I felt instinctively that modern mathematics must have parallel developments to the semiotics of Calvino and Eco, so I turned to some mathematicians (Dianne Kalish and Harold Hastings) for help. The fractal geometry of Benoit Mandelbrot (coincidentally also referred to recently by Ligeti and Wuorinen) was recommended and, although most of the theorizing was well beyond me, the concept of scaling struck a sympathetic note and the log-jam was broken. Scaling, as I understand it, states that whatever is true on one scale (not musical!) or level is true on all levels. This meshed nicely with my Schoenbergian training under Ben Weber and I saw my way clear.

I constructed an enormous physical model of the formal ?shape? (relationships of the various parts) of the book, hung it from the rafters of my studio and sat before it for weeks on end. Finally, the basic principle of developmental variations (nothing new about that ? vide Beethoven) ? constantly creating new material like the magma-spouting openings on the ocean floor ? presented itself, and the writing went rather fast. The work is a large single movement divided into three periods: the first is florid and stately, the second more song-like and soloistic, and the third propulsive. I must state, very clearly, that this piece is in no way a ?tone-poem? or musical translation of the content of "Invisible Cities" ? that would be to me a fatuous and doomed exercise.
The opportunity to write for the winds of The Philadelphia Orchestra has been one of the highpoints of my creative life. I was active as a clarinetist in the New York area for over 20 years (with the Symphony of the Air, the New York Philharmonic, etc.) and, as a student, I was weaned on the Tabuteau-Kincaid-McLane sound of the Philadelphia winds (I even enjoyed some coaching with Mr. Kincaid). The Orchestra has been justly famous for its signature string sound, but the equally strong influence of the woodwinds in creating the contemporary American school of playing is sometimes overlooked. This, combined with the fact that the old RCA 78 rpm recording of "Sacre" with Stokowski and the Philadelphia was the catalytic event in my musical maturation, makes this much more than just an orchestral commission for me.

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Additional Information

Commission Philadelphia Orchestra Constitutional Commission, underwritten by Johnson & Higgins.
Composition Date 1987
Duration 00:20:00
Orchestration 4 4(E.H.) 4(B.Cl.) 4(Cbsn.) - 6 4 4 1; Timp. 8Perc. Pno. 2Cel. Hpsd. 2Hp.
Premiere 26th, 27th, 28th February, March 3rd, 1987. Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA.