Eric Skytterholm Egan | Through the Embers

(2013) | Full Score

List of Works


Commissioned by Musicon, with the support of the Arts Council Norway

In 1989 Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine travelled the world to visit and document nine animal species that were near extinction. They chronicled their voyage in the now relatively unknown travelogue "Last Chance to See". In the concluding passages of the work, Adams recounts the tale of the Sybilline Books. In essence, an old woman goes to an ancient town and offers to sell them 9 books containing all the wisdom in the world. The townsfolk laugh at the seemingly absurd price and send her on her way. She burns three of the books I front of them and offers to sell the remaining six for the same price. Eventually there is only one book left, for which they have to pay the same price as for the original nine. One might say that the moral of Adams' tale is that as a species we are adept at hindsight but sadly fall short when it comes to forward thinking. My piece is inspired by the following extract from Adams' text:

She built a bonfire, and burnt three of the remaining books in front of them and then set off back across the plain. That night one or two curious people from the city sneaked out and sifted through the embers to see if they could salvage the odd page or two, but the fire had burnt thoroughly and the woman had raked the ashes.

In a sense Through the Embers follows an evolutionary musical process. Each player starts on their own island, independent for one another both in time, space, and material. Although all of the notes are scored, the musicians make certain decisions that shape the development of the structure of each section. Towards the centre of the piece, the structure becomes fully scored and the players start moving towards a common ground, both in time and in sentiment. This coming together culminates in a musical world where the material meets, while the subtleties and idiosyncrasies of the individual characters are largely lost or hidden.

When we enter a world that approaches that of streamlined harmony and rhythm, the piece can only really go in one direction; it has to function on a more limited plane, ordered by the confines of clearly defined musical principles. It has to conform to this conceptual totality, with its relative lack of subtlety and the loss of the richness inherent in the diversity of the preceding material. Of course, this has its advantages: the structuring of the material is now very comprehendible; it conforms to a broadly utilised format of human organisation - grouping according to periodicity and similarity. One might say that it flirts with a principle of sonic organisation that conveniently allows us to structure sound into a bite-sized packages for immediate cognitive consumption.

I am not attempting to pass a value judgement on different formats of musical structure; in fact, the different structural devices in the piece are to me equally interesting. However, it could be said that the latter is comparatively analogous to a world structured by human principles of convenient organisation. Some times the search for convenience does have serious side affects, such as the destruction of natural habitats and the extinction of inconveniently situated animal species. Fortunately this is not the case with music.

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