Quanta (2012)
piano solo

Robert Morris

Program Essay

Quanta for piano solo revisits a compositional idea I implemented in a piece of the same name in 1966 for two pianos. This piece was performed a few times, but I withdrew it from my list of works in the early 1980s. The 1966 piece had small passages of music arranged in a grid for each pianist to play. Each pianist would play independently, following paths from one passage to another on the grid. While the underlying concept of that work was valid, I was not altogether pleased with the character of the passages of music, which were composed without sufficient compositional finesse or nuance.

Forty-six years later, in the late spring of 2012, I wanted to write a piano piece based on various concatenations of tiny piano passages, each based on a unique syntax derived from all the non-equivalent cyclic combinations of pairs of related twelve-tone rows. Each fragment would be a piece in its own right and be given a name. Each piece could be played separately, perhaps for occasional lead-ins, segues, and lead-outs—preludes, -ludes, and postludes— between the items in a concert or talk, perhaps in the context of programmed media. (Organists are often obliged to improvise such passages within the context of a church service.) The micro pieces could also be concatenated in different ways to make longer pieces that could be considered short or medium-length pieces in a concert setting. So I returned to the grid idea to implement this conception.

One aspect of musical form is to consider it to be the ordering of musical sections. For example, ABA is the song form, where a first section A is followed by a different section B, ending with a third section which is the same as the first, A. More complicated forms, such as the rondo are generated in the same way, as a concatenation of sections, some repeated. Quanta, by using a grid of 49 position, each one holding a piece or a rest, takes form as the ordering of sections into two dimensions.

As in the original Quanta composition of 1966, the pieces are composed so that when they are placed in the grid they have shared features with some of their neighbors. Other neighboring pieces on the grid have contrasting features. It is the design of the grid—what kinds of music should go in each grid position—that determines which of the neighboring positions are similar or dissimilar. In fact, positions on the grid that are on the same row, column, or diagonal, or adjacent (in a square or diamond of grid positions) will share a musical feature such as density, length, register, tempo. In this way, following paths on the grid will preserve some musical features over several successive pieces, while others features will contrast; as the path takes different directions on the grid, the preserved and contrasting features change or exchange. Because each piece is based on a different cyclic combination of rows, it retains its identity amid the flow from one grid position to the next, making it easy to identify if it returns in a given performance.

Quanta can be performed different ways. It can be considered in analogy to the baroque suite in which not all pieces within the suite need to be played at a given performance; moreover, pieces can be extracted for performance from the suite as well. In this way, each performance of Quanta can be considered a “version.”

In the score I have specified some of the ways Quanta may be performed. Complete versions are those that contain all the pieces in one performance; they do not repeat any pieces, and they are called labyrinths. If there are repetitions of pieces, the version is called a maze. Performances that do not play all the pieces are called Selected Quanta. If four or less of the pieces are played, the program listing gives the names of the pieces after the title Quanta.

In sum, Quanta is a meta-composition; its myriad versions comprise a performance practice and repertoire. Each performance is a different interpretation of the formal concept that underlies the identity of the work.