La Neige est blanche mais l’eau est noire (Snow is white but water is black) derives from the writings of the philosopher Sextus Empiricus. In Peloponnesus, during the fourth century B.C., Pyrrho founded the philosophical school of Scepticism. Translated litterally, Sceptics should be conceived of as “examiners.” A person of some mystery, Pyrrho left no written works behind him. However, his disciples-one of whom was Sextus Empiricus-were much more prolific. Empiricus demonstrated the relativity of sensations and experiences through arguments based on four fundamental principles, including discordance (the construction of statements that have the appearance of logic but which, in fact, “short circuit” the logical process). While the erection of semantic labyrinths in the manner of Sextus may truly reside beyond the grasp of musical language, I have nonetheless composed La Neige est blanche mais l’eau est noire in this spirit. The music might, in a sense, function as a metaphor of, or analogy for, Sextus’s statement, rendered in the sonic domain-a work in motion that ultimately fails to travel.

The first movement, “Snowball Ciaccona” constitutes an exploration in the idea of accumulation (the “snowball” effect), based on the obsessive repetition, variation and superimposition of a single dance motive: that is, the chaconne technique pushed to its limit. The culmination of this madness only occurs with the disintegration of the work’s structure… a paradox. This work emits a tone that inevitably recalls the comic strip, at times rather burlesque as a result of its high-flown eloquence. (Bugs Bunny is not so far off from this.)

The second movement, “Frosted Passacaglia” assumes the “frozen” form of a similar genre (hence the title). While constant metamorphosis of a small motivic cell underpins the chaconne of the first movement, broader transformational gestures function throughout the passacaglia, though they effect no true change of material. This process spawns a certain calm, or perhaps, an uncertain calmness.

The third movement “Canto figurato” with a melting ground continues the dancing spirit of the first movement, alongside regular appearances of long melodic melisma (canto figurato). As in the first movement, the meter is literally “virtual”: constant motion (to reflect the melting ground) procures a… false… sense of regularity. This final movement appears more “directed” in its discourse than the previous two: the alternation of contrasting sections refers to the rondo with variations. The mood has changed, the listener transported far from the realm of “Snowball Ciaconna”. Now is the water black? — Denys Bouliane, Köln 2003

Commissioned by the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, the word is dedicated to all the musicians of the NAC Orchestra, to its music director, Pinchas Zukerman, and to its managing director, Christopher Deacon.

Denys Bouliane, Cologne, 2003

  • Score available at CMC, Région du Québec.