that secret from the river

Adagio symphony commissioned by the Bienen School of Music of Northwestern University in celebration of the completion of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts.
Dedicated to the incomparable Mallory Thompson.
[22 minutes]

Listen/Peruse

Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future?
– Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
When I hear music I've written, I am almost always overwhelmed by the feeling that I'm not actually the person who wrote it. And in a very real sense, I'm not; at least, not anymore. But when I hear it, I feel compelled to be grateful that the person who did write that music left the very best of himself in those notes and I go about my life trying to live up to them.

Program Note

Program Note: that secret from the river

Hesse’s quotation, poetic in its nature, incites a compelling philosophical quandary on the nature of reality and the perception of reality through time. The proposed observation harkens back to the flux doctrine of ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who noted that one who stepped into the same river twice was surrounded by changed waters. Hesse’s further exploration of this concept proposes a host of possibilities. Is our perception of time as a linear progression fundamentally flawed? Does anything remain the same over time, even as it changes significantly? Siddhartha’s journey in the novel hinges on his epiphanies by the river, as it serves as a metaphor for his (and the reader’s) life.

This quotation serves as the inspiration and soul of Joel Puckett’s that secret from the river, which approaches the idea of the river from the abstraction of sound. The composer says of his creative process:I have a very odd relationship with the past. I am constantly forced to confront past choices I've made in the form of the music I've written which I then experience in the present. When I hear music I've written, I am almost always overwhelmed by the feeling that I'm not actually the person who wrote it. And in a very real sense, I'm not; at least, not anymore. But when I hear it, I feel compelled to be grateful that the
person who did write that music left the very best of himself in those notes and I go about my life trying to live up to them.

In a sense, the metaphor of Hesse’s river is applied to the life of any person. Can any of us exist outside of the perspective of the absolute present, and are we still the same person as we were in the past or will be in the future? With art, the common predilection is to observe the creator’s oeuvre through a synchronic lens, assuming all works are also of the artists themselves. In that secret from the river, Puckett deals with this concept in a personally meaningful way through a lengthy study in motivic reference and thick, seemingly mystical harmonies.The work as a whole is cast in two large sections: first, an exploration of pure harmonies that are made distorted and hazy through glissandi into sound masses, and second, a series of variants on a familiar harmonic motive. For much of
the later portions of the piece, sections of the Hesse quotation are printed to accompany the score in a quasi-programmatic fashion. These fragments, positioned out of order, further lend to the concept of universal existence outside of time presented by the quotation itself.

The piece opens with a flash of keyboard instruments and thick clouds of harmony orchestrated into large alternating consorts of wind instruments building to a tremendous sonority that combines elements of both A major and minor. Out of the resonance emerges a solitary D which carries a feeling of placidity from the previous tumult. The first large section begins in earnest here, as the pitch is expanded through its natural harmonic series. This meditation on D comes in and out of focus as it is increasingly distorted by intense neighboring dissonance (first by microtonal adjustment, and subsequently through ever multiplying collections of semitones). With each sequence, more instruments join and enrich the texture until the full ensemble contributes. Two repetitions of this contour follow, albeit with altered pitch content and order of entry, before receding away into an expansive largo bearing the quotation fragment “…there is no such thing as time…” This transitional segment, which concludes the first half of the piece, executes glacially paced chords that slowly sink down by half-steps while a gentle canon between flute and trumpet ambiguously hint at both minor and major modalities once more.

The second half of the work, which in the score is accompanied by the Hesse fragment “…not the shadow of the past,” begins with a statement in the keyboards of a ringing harmonic progression. These harmonies hauntingly call to mind the principal harmonic motive in the “Eye of Shadow” movement from Puckett’s flute concerto The Shadow of Sirius. The ensemble joins in and grows in intensity and dissonance through a nearly direct repetition of the opening measures of the piece before cascading into a series of variants on this harmonic idea. A return to the glissando clusters from early in the piece closes the section, this time accompanied by the Sirius chord progression (which descend in this iteration much as the closing chords in the first half of the work). A brief coda continues the descent, adding to the dissonance until being swept away to frame a tender consonance of D-flat major. The journey moves the listener through a broad landscape of sounds, diverse, nostalgic, and seemingly spiritual. We are asked to meditate on this river and these waters – even if similar – are ever-changing and accept these experiences as but a moment in the eternal continuum.

That secret from the river was commissioned by Northwestern University in celebration of the completion of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts and is dedicated to Mallory Thompson and the members, past and present, of the Symphonic Wind Ensemble.
—Jacob Wallace