Interface Chapel (2008)

Interface Chapel Movements and Instrumentation
Johannes Kepler's model of the Solar System from Mysterium Cosmographicum

I think this may be the first time I've arrived at the title for a piece before I began composing it. The title explains very little of the particulars of the piece, but a great deal of the spirit of its construction. I have long been fascinated with Western classical cosmology, and how natural philosophers were able to make some very brilliant deductions from the cosmological axioms and the tools of observation they had to work with. In this piece I represent many of these concepts fairly loosely in music, and provide a space for them to interact musically. Given the nature of these ideas, I thought a “chapel” might be a nice metaphor for this space in which they “interface” with each other; and of course the title is a play on “Interfaith Chapel.”

On stage sit four different groups of musicians: first, a solo Contrabass in the middle and a pair of loudspeakers in front through which the solo bass is amplified; second, a Contrabassoon and Contrabass Clarinet which form a kind of obbligato pair; third, oboes, clarinets, and cellos; and fourth, four additional loudspeakers situated among the members of the ensemble (in this piece, those speakers do in fact act as individual “musicians”). The piece is in 28 movements, each a miniature devoted to one particular thing or idea. Some of the movements overlap with each other, and some movements even begin and end within the span of another movement.

Each of the movements belongs more or less to a discipline in pre-Newtonian understanding of the universe or humanity. Seven belong to astronomy; these are the heavenly bodies known at the time: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Six movements belong to geometry; these are the five Platonic solids (the regular polyhedra, or those with identical faces which are regular polygons), which include the Tetrahedron (triangular pyramid), Cube, Octahedron, Dodecahedron, and Icosahedron. In addition the Sphere, which was also important in cosmology, is the sixth. Five belong to physics and chemistry: they are the four classical elements Air, Water, Fire, Earth, and the Aristotelian element Aether. The four temperaments, Phlegmatic, Sanguine, Choleric, and Melancholic were an attempt to connect psychological states with states of the body. The categories Mineral, Vegetable, Animal, and Human together form a system of taxonomy in play through the Renaissance and after; it has an obvious evolutionary teleology. Some philosophical and religious traditions recognize three human “elements,” which are Body, Mind, and Soul; body and mind often form a dualistic pair. The listener might notice that each of these categories of knowledge is associated with certain of the instrumental ensembles.

Further, most of these have “cross-disciplinary” ties to others through astrology, philosophy, astronomy, etc. For instance, in Timaeus Plato associates each of the four classical elements with one of the Platonic solids. In the late 16th century, in his Mysterium Cosmographicum, Johannes Kepler creates a model of the solar system that relates the size of the orbits of each of the planets of the solar system to one of the Platonic solids (this is before he arrived at his famous laws of planetary motion); in his model each of the orbits was situated between nested polyhedra on the surface of inscribed and circumscribed spheres. I have included a picture of Kepler's conception. In turn, the elements were often associated to the humors and temperaments, and so forth. In this piece, any time I sought to emphasize one of these connections, I had the movements overlap, both in time and to a great extent in musical structure as well.

The six solo contrabass movements may be performed separately as a suite.