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Blues and the Principles of Excitation

    CHAMBER MUSIC string octet
    4 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos

    Duration: ca. 12 minutes
    Composed: 2013

    Programme Note: In 1997, NASA launched the series of Voyager spacecraft. On board were phonograph records known as the Voyager Golden Records, which contain sounds and images that were selected to show the diversity of life on earth. If intercepted by intelligent extraterrestrial life, or even future humans, these recordings were intended to define life on earth.

    One of the recordings included is called “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground”, recorded in 1927 by the gospel-blues artist, Blind Willie Johnson. It is played on the guitar using a bottleneck slide, and is accompanied by humming and moaning vocals without text. It was chosen for the Voyager Golden Records to depict the depths of human loneliness.

    The use of the bottleneck slide allows for a great amount of glissando between pitches, changes in vibrato, and the ability to mimic the human voice to some extent. It is an incredibly powerful technique in blues. In my piece, “Blues and the Principles of Excitation” you will hear this mournful, imprecise and oscillating sound in the slow music that starts the piece and returns again in the middle.

    Excitation is the application of energy to a particle, object, or physical system. In physics, it is the process in which an atom or particle moves to a higher state when energy is applied. In the system as it applies to this piece, we are talking about notes and chords; accents and rhythms which influence one another to produce a heightened state of excitation in the music, and by extension, to its listeners.

    Premiere: First performance by the Afiara and Cecilia String Quartets in Ottawa, August 4, 2013.

    Score Excerpt [PDF]

    Performed by the Cecilia and Afiara Quartets.
    Kelly-Marie Murphy, composer