Symphony #1: Fugitive Colours

Instrumentation 3(3rd dbl. picc)/3(3rd dbl. Ehn)/3(3rd dbl. bcl)/3(3rd dbl. cbn); 4/3/3/1; timp + 2 perc; harp; piano; orchestral strings
Percussion requirements (1) vib, chimes, med. tomtom, bass dr, susp. cymbal, 2 metal coffee cans, lg. tamtam, triangle, whip; (2) glock, 2 bongos, low tomtom, log dr, lion’s roar, tambourine, med. tamtam

Timing ca. 30′

Composed 2005

Commissioned by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra with assistance from the Canada Council for the Arts

World Premiere February 25, 2006, Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, British Columbia. Vancouver Symphony Orchestra; Bramwell Tovey, conductor

Recorded by the Vancouver Symphony, conducted by Bramwell Tovey on Fugitive Colours: Music of Jeffrey Ryan

Western Canadian Music Award nomination, Classical Composition of the Year 2012

Programme Notes

The term “fugitive colours” comes from the art world. I first heard this term many years ago with respect to weaving, but it is a term commonly used by painters as well. Fugitive colours are the opposite of permanent colours — while permanent colours retain their colour, fugitive colours fade when exposed to light.

A full orchestra, with its many different instruments, offers an extremely diverse palette of colours, and in my own music, I am always striving to find colour combinations that paint a vivid aural world and create a rich tapestry of sound and rhythm. I love to use colours that run, fade, blend and transform, colours that can be brilliantly bright or subtly shaded. And yet, music is as ephemeral as a fugitive colour — as soon as a sound is heard, it fades away. And so the idea of “fugitive colours” provided the perfect inspiration for my first symphony.

The work is cast in four movements. The first movement, Intarsia, takes its title from the knitting technique by which one colour of thread, which is about to be dropped, is woven in and wrapped around another colour of thread which is about to begin. From the “right” side, the colours change abruptly, but from the “wrong” side, one can see a complex web of interlaced colours. In translating this technique to sound, colour changes in the music are overlapped, with new orchestral colours entering “early,” under the dominant colours, then the dominant colours fade as the new colours take over, creating a seamless flow of colour transformation. After a slow introduction full of brief colourful (and foreshadowing) gestures, a “cord” of sound develops as the movement moves into its primary fast tempo and the cord becomes the first thematic element. This dense cord, initially comprised of clarinets, oboes and cellos, quickly thickens as more instruments are added, and the cord gradually unravels downward, leading to the second theme, which begins in the lower register of the orchestra. Over a steady pulse from the timpani, this theme begins as a playful duet between bass clarinet and contrabassoon. Again, other instruments join in and transform the colour, as the music rises again to fill in the full range of the orchestra. A development follows that exploits the rapid interplay of colour and rhythm, leading to a unison that ushers in the return of the main themes. An extended coda takes the movement to an emphatic and dramatic close.

The second movement is entitled Nocturne (Magenta). The bright light of the first movement is here contrasted by this slow movement of dark and muted colours. This “night music” does not, though, come from complete darkness but from the rich reddish-purple of magenta. Flashes of light appear, with extended solos for flute and bassoon, and brief gestures that swell up from the depths of the orchestra, then disappear. The turbulence eventually subsides, leading to an extended passage of calm, sustained strings and marimba. In the movement’s final gesture, the music builds to a fleeting chord from the full orchestra, which fades away as the piano gently takes the music skyward.

The scherzo third movement is called Light:fast, and is a play on the idea that fugitive colours are not, in fact, lightfast. This music is quick, insistent, and full of bright, rapidly changing colours, with a rhythmic and dancing main theme first introduced by the violas and contrasted with energetic episodes, including a twisting and turning theme played by the clarinets. Under the main theme, a long line rises from the bottom of the orchestra all the way to the top, building a dense closing chord that explodes in a brilliant flare that segues directly into the final movement, Viridian. The cool green of viridian infuses this movement with stillness and contemplation, echoing (yet contrasting with) ideas from the earlier Nocturne. After an expressive violin solo, brief cascades usher in a long exploring melody coloured by clarinets and upper strings. Gentle clusters of high woodwinds slowly dissolve, leading to a climactic repeated chordal statement from the full orchestra. Finally, the solo violin reappears, and the music fades into nothingness.

Symphony #1: Fugitive Colours was commissioned by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (Bramwell Tovey, music director) as part of my tenure as Composer-in-Residence (funded with the assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts).

Reviews

Yes, this was thoroughly modern music, with all that implies: an abundance of percussion, the occasional deployment of extended techniques, and well-masked quotations from the musical past. But it was also modern music that fell more on the sensual side of the scale than the intellectual. Ryan prefers smooth textures to thorny melodic conundrums, and his first symphony shows, appropriately enough, that he has a masterful command of instrumental colour.…I was impressed by Ryan’s use of percussion—gongs, drums, and marimba—to shoot sustained, almost electronic washes of sound through his first-movement string and horn arrangements. The work’s second section contained a series of slow melodic upwellings, culminating in a lengthy passage of shimmering, near-ambient strings. And my notes for the third and fourth movements, which run together, contain only a single word: Clang!…Vancouver needs a symphony orchestra that is of its time, and it’s wonderful to hear the VSO applying itself to the task with commissions as elaborate and gratifying as Ryan’s symphonic debut. May it receive many more hearings! (Alexander Varty/Georgia Straight)

Nocturne (Magenta) begins strikingly with a trio of muted trumpets. There are other fine moments: a strong, dark passage with resonant gong-like sonorities from the piano, and, near the conclusion, a particularly effective section for strings, harp, and marimba.…[T]his movement is an impressive achievement (and music that could successfully stand on its own).…With the concluding Viridian the symphony’s underlying planning and logic become clear as the work’s shape and content is brough into focus…HIs conclusion, with significant violin solos and a mood of measured seriousness, took time to create music of substance. (David Gordon Duke/Vancouver Sun)

PDF score excerpts

Intarsia excerpt   Magenta excerpt   Light:Fast excerpt   Viridian excerpt

Audio excerpts

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