Robinson McClellan ~ composer



for flute, clarinet, strings (variable) and piano

Commissioned, and premiered January 29, 2011, by the Mahagonny Ensemble, William Healy, directorkup recording (live recording not available):


This piece is a message of praise and thanks to the Hudson River. I got my start as a composer at Vassar College, within the river's magnetic pull. Later, I continued to write while I lived near the Hudson in upper Manhattan, taking daily walks in Riverside Park. On one of these walks in 2003 I heard a bagpiper playing just a few feet from the water. That moment sparked my interest in piobaireachd, a little-known type of early Gaelic bagpipe music. That interest has become a major main strand in my musical life. Piobaireachd's unique sound has found its way into many of my recent compositions, and I have written scholary analyses of its unearthly rhythms. By chance — or perhaps not — the Hudson has also witnessed a few other career milestones: an Albany Symphony commission, a Yaddo residency, and a commission from the Hudson Opera House.

With all that, I owe the Hudson a big thank you. Writing for Vassar's Mahagonny Ensemble offered the perfect chance to express my thanks and to bring things full circle by linking my Vassar years with piobaireachd: so this piece became a "piobaireachd for chamber ensemble."

But what does that mean? One of the things that drew me to piobaireachd is a certain quality in the sound of the Highland bagpipe: The perfectly matched timbres of the vibrato-less melody pipe and drone pipes create a mesmerizing texture of crisscrossing, dancing overtones high above, shifting as the melody with against its drone moves between consonance and dissonance.

Another draw was that piobaireachd melodies, mostly composed in the 16th - 18th centuries, follow intricate patterns of consonance and dissonance against the drone. In medieval harp manuscripts from Wales — a Celtic culture with links to the Gaels of Scotland — such patterns were written in a 'binary code' using "1" (consonant 'home' chord) and "0" (dissonant 'away' chord). What makes these patterns distinctive is their obsession with symmetry and inversion: for example, here is an inverted pattern they used often: 0010, 1101. This piece follows an elaborate pattern, typical of piobaireachd. I won't expand further here (though I'm happy to share with anyone interested), but you can listen, if you like, for this pattern, which begins with the strings and ends at their first pause: 1011, 0100, 1100, 1111.

In this piece I tried to capture all that through the clarinet, flute, strings and piano. So: like a conventional piobaireachd theme, this piece is one long, slow, soaring melody, heard in the strings. The tune is based closely on "Lament for the Viscount of Dundee," a 17th-century tune; all I did was to invert the sonorities, changing every note but only by a step. Meanwhile the flute and clarinet play written-out "overtones" while the piano provides harmony, pulse and momentum.

A typical piobaireachd tune — slow and usually without a perceptible beat — sounds to me like the bow of a boat, cutting through that water of overtones in vast sweeping curves, at unbelievably fast but utterly smooth speed. The piece is five minutes long; imagine the speed it would require to travel the length of the Hudson between NYC and Poughkeepsie in that short span of time, long slow curves experienced from the bow of that supernaturally fast boat, Hudson Running.


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