Variations in the Reeds

for Reed Quintet

Species counterpoint is a time-honored method for learning how to write two or more lines of music that work well together. Infamous for its many rules, species counterpoint applies restrictions on both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of music — meaning that each line must be balanced and harmonious not only by itself left to right, but also up and down between all the lines at any given moment. The result is a kind of musical sudoku puzzle in which every decision resonates out in multiple directions.

It's difficult to do anything unpredictable within such a restrictive framework, but that also makes the simplest twist or unexpected leap all the more impactful. For a while, I became somewhat obsessed and spent hours reworking the same exercises, trying to achieve the prescribed balance in a more interesting way. Eventually, this led to the creation of the theme for Variations in the Reeds.

The piece begins with a robust staccato variation. In fact, all nine movements of the piece are variations with no outright presentation of the theme; however, it can be heard most clearly in the sparse third movement as played by the saxophone and bass clarinet. In each variation, the theme is put through a different rhythmic prism, from the dance-like fifth movement to the slow, overlapping swells of the eighth movement.

The form of the piece follows a simple pattern. Odd-numbered movements act as refrains and all consist of a single statement of the theme. For each of the remaining four movements, I explore a quarter of the full theme in a freer style.



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