2 weeks ago I attended the premiere of my string quartet Unravelling Graphite. Commissioned by the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, as part of the 2014 Silver Harris & Jeff Peck Prize, it was so incredibly bizarre and intriguing to hear a work I began so long ago. Having composed half and mapping the entirety by early 2015, the next 12 months I slowly and gradually revisited, finished, edited, re-worked, re-wrote, re-edited, and re-revisited over and over again. As expected, every time I revisited this piece it became more and more alien, more and more difficult to pick up where I left off, at war with myself when faced whether to or whether not to add that new idea.

What resulted was a work dictated by an accumulation of more than a years worth of compositional whims.

Ultimately a slowly evolving spectrum of sound, the work follows an overarching pitch trajectory from pitch class E. Up until about halfway (4’30”), Unravelling Graphite works its way very slowly and sometimes rather roundabout, from E, ascending to A. A is reinforced via a short cello solo, before becoming more and more unstable, proceeding upwards again, eventually up to B. At two-thirds in there is an unexpected event whereupon the pitch leaps up to F, collapsing in a matter of seconds to Eb, a semitone below where the piece began. This slowly builds again but only ever reaching F.

Alongside this very macro-level pitch trajectory, is the constant emerging interval of a third (major, minor, and microtones in-between). Beginning rather bluntly as a minor third in the cello towards 1’30” it acts as a germ in the piece, reappearing, morphed, sometimes frequently within a short space of time, and sometimes after much time has elapsed. Most unstable at the two-thirds mark after the ‘collapse’ (the glissando gesture), here it morphs into the major third, which most strikingly dominates the end of the piece (Db-F).

The last structural device I used in constructing this piece is a sketch I made during a few dry spells of musical creativity. Starting as mere scratchy lines and shapes, it soon became a visual embodiment of my work. Although not used to dictate gesture and development from the start, as I reached further into 2016 of editing and rewriting, this became increasingly useful and a reference as to what realm this piece might occupy visually.

Unravelling Graphite Sketch
Unravelling Graphite Sketch

As far as specific micro elements of the score, how I decided on use of microtones, rhythm, how quickly the pitch would rise or collapse, this was the most difficult part and difficult to pin down in words (and generally what I earlier referred to as whims). Through constant editing and revisiting over almost 2 years, I slowly refined where I wanted pitch to be more stable, where I didn’t want stability, where it would build, and where it would slow in momentum, and the role of register – by how many octaves are the instruments displaced, how erratic are gestures utilising leaps and harmonics, and when are the instruments all compacted in unison etc.

Typical of where my compositional thoughts are and have been for the past few years, this piece further explores my push and pull with heterophony, use of microtones and harmonics, and somewhat excessive use of ornamentation (an excessive decoration of a gesture, idea, or line).

Big thanks to Kurilpa String Quartet (Graeme Jennings, Brendan Joyce, Yoko Okayasu, and Katherine Philp) for premiering my work! Recording is here via my barest of bare skills utilising a Zoom H4n.

Unravelling Graphite Sketches Spring
Sketches from Unravelling Graphite – outside, spring has arrived…


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