In 1962, Alexander Tcherepnin had written down several Chinese scales he had brought back from Peking and handed them to me saying, “You might want to use one of these scales someday.”
“Music on Open Strings” (Symphony No. 1) is a work for string orchestra commissioned by the Rhineland Chamber Orchestra in 1971. I composed a piece using the Chinese scale C, D flat, F, G flat, and B flat. Alas, it sounded to me like a pseudo Chinese piece. I tore it into pieces and went to bed. In the morning, I awoke with a new idea.
Could I retune all the strings of the orchestra to that scale? Yes, this was possible! I wrote a melody in a mosaic pattern. During the third movement I had the strings retune in canonic forms to normal tuning while playing. The final movement is in normal tuning. I used it vertically with waves of glissandi originating from the open strings in various rhythms.
During the rehearsal the musicians began to complain that there was no “melody” and it was too difficult to keep the rhythm without a conductor. Not wanting a poor performance, I took the piece off the concert and put it away on a shelf.
Upon telling Zygmunt Krauze, a Polish composer on tour in Munich about the piece I had written years ago, he advised me to send the score to the Warsaw Autumn Committee. This I did, and on September 20, 1978, it was scheduled for premier with the Polish Chamber Orchestra under Jerzy Maksymiuk.
However, during the first rehearsal in Poland, some of the musicians complained, saying that the music did not sound very beautiful on the raw open strings; but more important, it was impossible to play a gradual crescendo. There was one more rehearsal, and I would have to find a solution to the crescendo, agree with them to play it without open strings, or take it off the program. In this work the form and content are inter-dependent, so it would be senseless to perform it on stopped strings, and I would be forced to take it off the program.
I was a guest on the top floor of the old Paderewski Hotel in the center of Warsaw. That night I couldn’t sleep. Suddenly an idea came to me. Could I create a crescendo if the players loosened the hairs of their bows and tightened them little by little in the rests of the mosaic pattern?
I only had a few hours before the rehearsal that morning. It was 5 a.m. I had no instrument to try this out, as one cannot experiment in the limited time at rehearsals. I happened to glance out the window and saw a man with a case standing under the street light. Could it be a doctor? or a musician! The elevator was shut down for the night, so I ran down the long spiral staircase and out the door. There was no one in sight.
Searching the square, I suddenly saw him behind an advertising column. I tried talking to him but he spoke only Polish. Then I motioned to him as if playing a violin. He nodded, pointed to the column of a Krakow concert and pointed to his watch. I pointed to my name on the column and the concert date. We woke the night watchman from the hotel who translated the directions about loosening the hairs of the bow. The crescendo was possible!
Several hours later, I approached the concert master who seemed amused with the new approach. Jerzy Maksymiuk was in full agreement. The Polish Chamber Orchestra under Maksymiuk brought ’Music on Open Strings’ to the long awaited premier. Detlef Gojowy wrote in ‘Melos’, “It was hailed by the public as the cutting edge of experimental music. It is the beginning of the very origin of elementary musical material.”
American Composers Orchestra (ACO) is dedicated to the creation, celebration, performance, and promotion of orchestral music by American composers. With commitment to diversity, disruption and discovery, ACO produces concerts, pre-college and college education programs, and emerging composer professional development to foster a community of creators, audience, performers, collaborators, and funders.
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