The Road of Excess

for SSATTB mixed choir, a cappella; 6′ (2007)
poetry: William Blake

performed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Madrigal Singers, dir. Bruce Gladstone:

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text:
“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

composer’s note:

“The Road of Excess” was written for a concert featuring choral music with a focus on rhythm. And while that meant much of the music was very rhythmically active, I wanted to take that prompt in a different direction. So, “The Road of Excess” is a choral piece modeled, in part, after Steve Reich’s “phase” works. A 9-bar phrase is presented in its pure form as kind of prelude to the piece. Then, 4 of the choral sections sing that phrase, but in slightly altered rhythms: the original 9-bar version, an 8.5-bar version, an 8-bar version, and a 7.5-bar version. As they continue to repeat the phrase, they become increasingly out-of-synch with each other, creating a rich tapestry of choral sound. Meanwhile, as that sonic tapestry is woven, the other two sections not participating in that phasing texture add a stretched-out melody in whole notes, radically changing the harmonic context of the overall texture. In this way, the same single line of text repeating over and over in this complex texture, the music portrays “the road of excess,” in addition to just creating beautiful sound.

william-blake-the-marriage-of-heaven-and-hellBut because this piece is about excess, it doesn’t end there. As the phasing vocal lines line back up with each other, they start adding rich romantic harmonies, thickening the texture harmonically as the rhythm becomes simpler. And when they’ve all lined up together, the entire choir unites in a gigantic crescendo, leading to a huge climactic statement of the text. And, once again, in the name of excess, the final cadence of that climactic statement stretches out into a long resolution, the initial melody repeated two more times by the tenors, while the rest of the choir slowly winds down to a final chord, milking the material for all it’s worth. So in the end, one single melodic line becomes a gigantic minimalist texture, morphs into a huge romantic texture, and finally drifts off into the distance, to the palace of wisdom.

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The Road of Excess