Brilliant electronic images of the universe served as the initial inspiration, however, the news of Glenn Gould’s death interrupted my focus, leaving me to reflect on mortality and the meaning of being an artist. Through this time I listened to those musical works most meaningful to me and consoled myself at the piano. I also attended the memorial service where we, a group of 3,000 people, participated in the singing of hymns and chorales, including the beautiful Nun danket Alle Gott. The effect of the mass of people sharing a common grief was overwhelming. It was during this time that the focus of my string orchestra piece began to change, and quotes of these pieces appeared in my score in a rather fantasy-like reverie, some quite clear and untampered with, others quite distorted. Throughout the fabric of the work are woven fragments of Bach: the chorale, the “Allemande” from Suite française in G, the Air on a G string as well as the Prelude and Fugue in B flat juxtaposed upon one another. It ends with a quote from the last movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, “der Abschied” (“The Farewell”).
Besides the use of these fragments as structual elements, I have also incorporated a rather other-worldly calm theme in artificial harmonics in the upper strings, a recurring motif of rapid repeated patterns, various permutations of large chord clusters, and a bi-tonal juxtaposition of a G-major triad over an F-sharp major triad. This piece is my expression of wonder at the mysteries of music, of the universe and of being an artist, as well as an expression of grief over the premature death of a great musician.
O Magnum Mysterium: In Memoriam Glenn Gould was commissioned by the Festival of Contemporary Music and McGill University in 1983. Since its premiere it has been performed many times, including a performance by the BBC Symphony. — AL
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