Last modified 18 July 2015

Whispers Out of Time (1988)
(String ensemble)

by Roger Reynolds

            I.    The Soul Is a Captive
            II.   A Magma of Interiors           
            III.  Like a Wave Breaking on a Rock
            IV.   The Surprise, the Tension Are in the Concept
            V.     A Chill, a Blight Moving Outward
            VI.   The Portrait's Will to Endure

                                                                   – John Ashbery

In 1524, the Mannerist painter Parmigianino, using a convex barber's mirror to find his image, conceived the bravura notion of reproducing not only his likeness but also that of the mirror itself. He asked a carpenter to fashion a wooden ball and then cut it to size. Across its surface, he reproduced his own distorted likeness and that of his studio. In 1959, John Ashbery saw the "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" in Vienna and responded with a long and particularly rich poem by the same name. My encounter with Ashbery's unsettling, elusive commentary affected me as no other poetry has. Stumbling over its improbable landscape of ideas and images, each time finding new paths, and losing them, I decided that my most effective "reading" might be accomplished through a musical composition, an analog in sound. My intention was to examine the circumstance that had stimulated the poet and to follow where possible the processes that his words suggested.

Ashbery mentions Berg's report that a theme in the first movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony was  "death itself", and I went to that score only to find that Mahler was himself quoting Beethoven's "Lebewohl" (farewell) opening to the Sonata, Op. 81a. In several nested contexts, then, content was distanced by time as well as by individual perspective. I reduced the introduction of the Beethoven Sonata to a two-line skeleton, but then stretched out, phrase by phrase, its original rhythmic proportions. (The effect is of temporal convexity.) A similar but more extreme procedure was followed with an ominous and otherworldly passage from the Mahler.

The poem is in six sections of markedly differing lengths. Critic Helen Vendler observes that Ashbery uses changes in mood to define structure, and I took note of its fluctuations, mirroring them not literally, of course, but in his manner. I composed a series of six interrelated movements which parallel the poem in varying degree. My work is a mirror – a sonic one – that selectively recasts and translates into its own world Ashbery's vision. While he has been content with one reference, Parmigianino's portrait, I have included as a thematic basis, two. The first is the skeletonized Beethoven cocooned within two new lines of my invention. Its influence is felt primarily during the first three movements. The second thematic source is based on the later Mahler, and begins my fourth movement with a jagged, appassionata solo line against an insistent pedal on F-sharp and C. The last three movements, most strongly shadowed by Mahler, also include references to the earlier Beethoven source.

Because the stretched quotations (contrapuntal residues of their originals) are placed in a linearly layered relationship to my added parts, it is possible to  "weigh" the degree to which a citation reveals or shrouds its identity. Removing my cloakings brings one into direct contact with the source, while removing the traditionally derived materials provides only the contemporary context (against which the influence of the musical past many still be sensed). Further harmonic and figurative elements were needed almost as theatrical set – for preparation, relief, transition – and these were independently composed.

I have always resisted the venerable tradition of borrowing from the work of other composers, seeing its practical attractions, but preferring to say what I had to offer with my own voice. In this case, however, the distance between our contemporary circumstance and an earlier artis's statement is fundamental to the weighing and relishing of the subject. The medium of the string orchestra seemed ideal for the dark, lyrical world of inference aroused in me.

Whispers Out of Time was composed at Amherst College in 1988 and premiered there on 11 December 1988, with Harvey Sollberger, conductor. It was commissioned by the Amherst College Music Department through the generosity of the John Tennant and Elizabeth Collins Adams Music Fund. This work was awarded the Pulitzer Prize is 1989.

– Roger Reynolds