Kaamos (Polar Night)

Kaamos (Polar Night)

Kaamos (Polar Night)

for six players on three marimbas

Program Notes

“Kaamos” is a Finnish word, which refers to the “polar night,” that time in the winter above the Arctic Circle when the sun never rises above the horizon. The season can vary in length from a day or two to several months, depending on how far north a given location is. Although the sun never completely appears during this period, it can approach the horizon, and so it is not actually totally dark all the time. Indeed there are hauntingly beautiful variations in the twilight, as the sun seems to try to rise, but never quite makes it. Of course, the darkness is more complete and longer lasting the further north one goes.

This season affects people very differently (as does the endless day of summer in the same regions). Some find it compelling and mystical, while others have difficulty dealing with it (Finnish even has a word, “kaamosmasennus,” meaning “polar night depression”). In this piece, though, I concentrate on the mystery, the beauty, and the sense of wonder inspired by such a strange experience, something one could perhaps imagine more easily on another planet than here on our own Earth.

Kaamos is, in a way, a companion piece to another recent work of mine, Yötön Yö (Nightless Night), in which I try to imagine the music of the midsummer “white nights” in these climes, when the sun never sets. Both pieces are the indirect result of a trip I made to Finland in October of 2011. I did not get to experience either phenomenon, but was very intrigued by them, and was delighted to learn the lovely Finnish terms.

After attending some concerts by the wonderful percussion ensemble at the University of Louisville, I was moved to write something for them, and for their director, my colleague Greg Byrne. These concerts included some pieces for marimba ensembles of different sizes, demonstrating how interesting it can be to write for a group of like instruments. I love percussion, and have been known to use a very large number of percussion instruments in a single work, which of course presents certain practical challenges (availability of exotic instruments, set up time for rehearsal and performance, cartage). So, thinking of these very effective pieces using nothing but marimbas, I decided on the instrumentation for Kaamos. It helps, of course, that the marimba has a very wide range, and that the sound of the instrument is not all that homogenous throughout the several octaves. The uppermost notes are brittle and dry, almost like a xylophone, while the bottom register is rich, resonant and darkly mysterious. I have exploited these differences fully, using a wide variety of textures.

Kaamos is in a single movement, lasting about six and a half minutes. For those interested in such things, the initial proportions were determined using the Golden Section (.618-a ratio found in many natural phenomena and also much used to determine proportions in art, architecture, and music), and the Fibonacci Series, although in the course of composition they were slightly deviated from. For some reason, the mathematical determinism that creates the polar night inspired me to use another kind of mathematical determinism in composing the piece. The climax occurs at approximately the Golden Section point. The melodies and the harmonies, however, were arrived at more intuitively, and not according to any preset formulas.

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