About this work
Having been trained in the serialist methods inherited from Arnold Schoenberg and carried to new extremes of control by Webern, Boulez, and Babbitt, George Rochberg eventually sought to broaden his palette of compositional techniques and reconnect to an older sense of musical tradition (i.e., tonality) as well as to explore more intuitive, emotional, and subjective modes of expression.
Composed during 1978-1979, Slow Fires of Autumn a duet for flute and harp, followed Rochberg's adoption of a neo-tonal or neo-Romantic musical language; within that broad category, the work represents the convergence of a number of influences and aesthetic concepts. Commissioned by the Naumburg Foundation on behalf of flutist Carol Wincenc (who appears on the remarkable CRI recording with harpist Nancy Allen), the piece immediately presents a combination of Eastern and Western sounds. The harp is heard first, but its unusual articulations and occasional pitch inflections hint at Oriental instruments; likewise, the dynamic contours and exaggerated attacks of the flute evoke for Western listeners something like the sound of the shakuhachi. In fact, Rochberg explicitly indicates the Orientalist leanings of the piece. Borrowing some of its musical materials from Rochberg's earlier work for harp, Ukiyo-e, Slow Fires of Autumn bears the earlier composition's title as its own subtitle. The word in Japanese refers to a style of painting that, according to Rochberg, sees the world "not as static, fixed forms of reality but as floating pictures of radiant qualities, which range from states of forlornness and emptiness to quiet or ecstatic joy." The piece even ends with a presentation of a Japanese folk tune, a plaintive lullaby rendered in F minor. The lullaby appears only in hints and snatches, before appearing only in the last few minutes before the conclusion as a tonally lucid and expressively focused culmination of the work. Previous to the folk tune's complete emergence, Rochberg engages in a number of episodes in which tonal orientation is ambiguous and gesture is direct. The work opens with dark, exaggerated textures in the harp and concise but graceful motions in the flute. The rhythm is initially quite free and the texture is spare (the cliché comparison to a Japanese rock garden is unavoidable, especially considering the idealized concepts of the East that Westerners still held in the 1970s). The fluidity of this opening material reflects the Rochberg's desire to contrast what he described as "the more strenuous world of Western traditions." The unpredictable ebb of the opening leads to a more active and uninhibited section in which both instruments execute more ambitious figurations and exaggerated gestures and textures. This moment eventually expends itself, winding down into the eventual presentation, in a relatively simple and unadorned fashion, of the Japanese lullaby.