Many Pink Butterflies for flute, clarinet, and vibraphone
Work no. 190 2021
Timur Ismagilov was visiting in late April, and among other topics of conversation, we commiserated about our day jobs. Neither of us could make a living by composing. Having a day job, and living alone as both of us were, meant we didn't have much time for working on our music. Smaller pieces were possible, of course, but composing a large work was problematic, to say the least. After Timur left, I got to thinking about whether or not I could come up with a way to compose something large, something much larger in fact, than all of my previous pieces.
About a month later, I was fortunate to come up with a system of controlled improvisation which made Many Pink Butterflies possible. The music is both completely improvised and tightly structured. On the most basic level, there are 96 subsections, cycling through all possible permutations of four types of texture. These subsections are organized into larger sections, and those into groups, each group having a set of basic rules for harmony and subsection lengths. The groups follow a cycle, as do the sections; there is a further cycle governing which instrument is prominent in a given section. I like to think of this as a Chinese landscape scroll. They almost always consist of nothing but stock elements – steep cliffs and vast expanses of water, pines, fishing huts, little bridges and pavillions. But because the scroll can't be seen all at once, and has to be unrolled slowly, it becomes not an endless repetition of the same, but like an actual walk through the landscape. Each fragment is new, each vista of the sea is breathtaking, each pavillion inviting, each pine forest a tangled mess of branches and paths, until the viewer is lost in the imagined land.
Many Pink Butterflies was composed during one of the worst summers I've had in my life, one in which I nearly died from an undiagnosed infection, and had a loved one go through a difficult recovery from an illness. Heat waves washed over the city. My foods would spoil from the heat, my houseplants died. At work, the AC broke down and I'd go through three, four 12-hour shifts in a row in horrendous heat and humidity. But whenever I could find a little time, and a little strength to work on Many Pink Butterflies, it always worked out. I'd never had an experience like this. The music seemed to just flow out from an invisible source, like a river in a forest at nightfall. It brought me a lot of happiness during those difficult times.