The Why of Azathoth, 2007-08
 For flute doubling piccolo and alto, and microtonal harpsichord

This work is inspired by the universe of H.P. Lovecraft and is a kind of cosmically-twisted Baroque dance, emphasizing strict “togetherness” in a time-flow warped by extra-metrical ornamental figures, which stretch and distend the common pulse.  In Lovecraft’s mythology, Azathoth is the insane blind creator god at the center of the Universe, who has a flute with which he created everything.  The first note he played to bring about the beginning of Everything was so mighty that it cracked the instrument.  He plays in the middle of a vast nothingness and his flute tones fan out across the universe and cause worlds to come into existence or to vanish.  Because this instrument is cracked, everything in the universe is imperfect.  The Why of Azathoth is a period piece from a period that never existed, but could have.

This piece explores time and tonality on a dynamic spectrum with “fixed” values on one end and “free” on the other.  In terms of time, there are strict metric instructions given in the form of metronome markings and exact rhythmic notation but these are countered by much more freely-interpreted devices such as extended ornamental passages (using reduced grace-note notation) and speed-shifting devices like feathered beaming.  My goal was to invoke a rigid temporal grid and then allow the materials to stretch or distend that grid to make room for themselves.

In terms of tonality, there are several confounding elements at work.  The first is the tuning of the harpsichord: it is a mostly non-repeating collection of pitches gleaned from an ancient, funky, broken autoharp my brother found in the attic of a condemned house (which my wife nicknamed “Crapsichord”).  When I tried to tune it, it resisted and returned to its old tuning within about 10 minutes.  I decided that something so dedicated to its own unique voice deserved my respect.  After measuring the strings’ exact frequencies, I rounded each’s pitch to the nearest quarter- or sixth-tone and then tuned the top manual of the harpsichord accordingly.  This had several interesting results… first of all, there are few actual octaves, which means that (in most cases) re-voicing a chord fundamentally changes its harmonic content.  Second, when the manuals are linked, there is no obvious consistency between notes that are close to unison and notes that are as much as 2/3 of a tone apart.  Third, when the octave pedal is applied as well, a single key can result in three distinct pitches occurring in two octaves.

The second confounding tonal element is the flute.  Where the harpsichord can maintain perfect accuracy while producing exact microtonal intervals, the flute is encouraged to slide between pitches; it is as flexible as the harpsichord is rigid.  Unison passages are necessarily “fatter” than they would perhaps otherwise be.

This recording is from the Darmstadt Ferienkürse in 2008 in Darmstadt, Germany.  

Madleina Collenberg, flutes; Robert Bauer, harpsichord.