for large wind ensemble (piccolo, 4 flutes, alto flute, 2 oboes, 4 Bb clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, 4 horns, 3 C trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, 2 euphoniums, 2 tubas, percussion [3 players], harp, piano)
Despite its evocative title, the elements is not exactly focused on what one would think. Yes, the four pieces are loosely based on the classical elements of creation (earth, water, air, and fire), but each piece has a more specific image attached to it, albeit connected in a more abstract manner.
The first piece, earth, is often associated with the rigidity and heaviness of the terrestrial world, yet also represents sensuality in life.
More specifically, this work is drawn from the image of the Antarctic Peninsula. Formed almost as a perfect continuation of the Andes Mountains of South America, this land mass rests in one of the most tectonically turbulent regions of the planet, towering over the southern oceans with deceptive serenity. While mostly unmoving to the titanous waves that hammer its surroundings, the peninsula has recently begun to shed its icy coat that has encased it for centuries, dropping it suddenly and unceremoniously into the seas below to a hellish soundtrack of cracking, grinding, and shattering.
The combination of these two sources forms the basis of this work, relying prominently on timbrel shifts driven by the brass and colored by the woodwinds to define its aural palette.
water is likely the most complicated of the classical elements, associated with everything from purity and life to emotions, intuition, and femininity.
This piece, though, draws more from an experience I had in Belize while visiting the area with a friend stationed in the region with the Peace Corps. During the trip, we took a tour of the Actun Tunichil Muknal. This cave is found in the jungles of the Tapir Mountain National Reserve and is home to Maya ritual grounds. To get there, one must hike through the jungle, wade through two rivers (or the same river twice, as the case may be), and then wade against the current of a river flowing out of the cave to get to the sacred grounds. For parts of the hike you are in ankle-deep water, and at other moments you are in shoulder-deep water, the small headlamp provided by your tour guide the only source of light to be seen.
Upon arrival to the site, you find yourself surrounded by ceramics, tools, and calcified human remains, all bearing evidence of having been used in sacrificial ceremonies now thought to be common in the pre-contact civilization. While not an exact narrative by any means, water strives to capture the many aspects of this fascinating journey.
The third work, air, is a scherzo movement and pulls heavily from my first time visiting Boulder, Colorado. The day I arrived, winds were screaming out of the Flatirons at an average speed of 85 mph. While no one really seemed phased by this, coming from Arizona (a region of little to no elemental diversity), it definitely stuck with me seeing the residents walking at a 45° angle to the ground and birds flying backwards. These winds have only come around a handful of other times since I have made Boulder my home, but that first experience definitely made an impact.
Lastly, fire is a slow, warm work. Many would associate the name with a quicker, destructive dance, associate strongly with energy, assertiveness, and passion.
For whatever reason, this element actually took me back to a camping trip to the Pine Mountain Observatory with my high school physics class. This trip was designed to build comradery for the students so that we may rely on each other over a semester of an otherwise heartless and unsympathetic course. The observatory is located far out in eastern Oregon, nowhere near civilization, and shrouded in mostly undisturbed natural surroundings. I remember distinctly hiking up a nearby hill adjacent to the observatory to sit in the dark staring at the stars until the waning hours of the evening with my friends—many of us had not yet experienced the full grandeur of the Milky Way away from city lights, myself included—discussing whatever it was that high school physics students discussed, while losing ourselves in the incomprehensible infinity of the sky.
The serenity I recall from that trip is one of my fondest memories from that part of my life, and seemed appropriate to link with fire since it conjures up such a distinct energy and passion for me.
As a whole, the imagery in the elements is not readily associated to each other, though the music is and may be conceived as either four separate works or a single entity in which each successive movement builds upon the previous to prepare for the next.