Composer Thomas Adès challenges these constraints. He looks for new possibilities of creating unfamiliar textures and sounds, and floods the score with instructions about tempo, dynamics—the performer is often asked to play several chords simultaneously with different dynamics for each one—and even the amount of pedal use in every moment (quarter-pedal, third-pedal, half-pedal, full pedal, or no pedal at all). The harmonic language is also unique. It combines severe renaissance counterpoint rules, 19th-century chord progressions, and 20th-century spices. Like putting old photo slides one on top of another, memories from different periods of life—a new picture is created. It is a stunning example of how the small details create the big picture; how extreme specificity creates an illusion of ambiguity.
In the beginning of the piece, the composer throws a fast arpeggio up in the air and watches it slowly descend, submitting to gravity, like a balloon losing its air. The names of the two first movements, as well as the title of the piece, evoke associations of “upwards.” Traced Overhead is a title that invites you to look up. The first movement—less than a minute long—is called “Sursum.” It comes from a part of the Christian Mass that begins with “Sursum Corda,” meaning “lift up your hearts.” The second movement is called “Aetheria”—Latin for sky, upper air, or ethereal. Longer than its predecessor, this movement is comprised of capricious music that quickly shifts between different ideas, like electric pulses in the brain during a dream. While these titles all suggest ascending, the piece is really about what happens after the rise—when gravity begins to run its course.
The music wraps-up with an arpeggio à la Chopin, morphing unexpectedly from one harmony to another, until it disappears somewhere in the low keys of the piano. It invokes the very first arpeggio that opened the piece, now saying its farewell. What goes up must come down.
To listen to Traced Overhead click here