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Michael Torke

Programme Notes

The Yellow Pages

"If one believes that appropriation….is not a viable aesthetic, then one must conclude that shopping in the pawnshop of tonality will yield musical pages that are yellowed and old. Yet if one believes in the possibility of ahistoricism and further is not bothered by notions of accessibility and the 'allographic', then the music could be compared to the yellow pages, published for A.T.&T., as that book finds a place in every home. And paging through the categories of telephone numbers inside, one notices that, alphabetically, they change slowly: 'Automobile Wrecking', 'Aviation Consultants', and 'Awnings and Canopies'. This gradual transition is reflected in the handling of a slow transpositional process in the piece. Finally, the key of G Major, around which the piece is based, is the color of yellow, or at least a darkish burnt yellow."

Adjustable Wrench

"Each group of four instruments combines with a keyboard: four woodwinds matched with a piano, four brass with a marimba, and four strings with a synthesizer. After a melody is introduced, it is then harmonized into four-note chords. The chords become an accompaniment for a new melody, which in turn is harmonized to work with the accompaniment. The old chords drop out making the new chords become the new accompaniment for yet another melody."
"The keyboard instruments, around which each family of four instruments is grouped, simply doubles exactly what is being played. The piano, marimba, and synthesizer add no new material. Instead, they add an extra envelope to the four-note chords as well as reinforce the attacks."
"The music falls into the kind of four-bar phrases in most popular music. Overall, the structure of the piece is arranged in four identifiable sections."


"In trying to find a clear and recognizable language in chich to cast this chamber orchestra piece, I have chosen some of the most basic, functionally tonal means: tonics and dominants in F-minor, a modulation to the relative major (A flat), and a three part form which, through a retransition, recapitulates back to F-minor. What I offer is not invention of new "words" or a new language but a new way to make sentences and paragraphs in a common, much-used, existing language. I can create a more compelling musical argument with these means because, to my ears, potential rhetoric seems to fall out from such highly functional chords as tonics and dominants more than certain fixed sonorities and pop chords that I have used before. My musical argument is dependent on a feeling of cause and effect, both on a local level where one chord releases the tension from a previous chord, and on the larger structural level, where a section is forced to follow a previous section by a coercive modulation. The orchestration does not seek color for its own sake, as decoration is not a high priority, but the instruments combine and double each other to create an insistent ensemble from beginning to end. Only occasionally, as in the middle A-flat section, do three woodwind instruments play alone for a short while to break the inertia of the ensemble forging its course together."

Bright Blue Music

"In my last two pieces I employ the technique, of breaking up and reassembling a sixteenth note pulse in 4/4 time, in the context of a single general sweep from beginning to end. I wanted to continue this development in Bright Blue Music, but I felt unsettled about the language needed to employ these ideas. Inspired by Wittgenstein's idea that meaning is not in words themselves but in the grammar of words used, I conceived of a parallel in musical terms: harmonies in themselves do not contain any meaning, rather, musical meaning results only in the way harmonies are used. Harmonic language is then, in a sense, inconsequential. If the choice of harmony is arbitrary, why not then use tonic and dominant chords-the simplest, most direct, and – for me- the most pleasurable? Once this decision was made and put in the back of my mind, an unexpected freedom of expression followed. With the simplest means, my musical emotions and impulses were free to guide me. The feeling of working was exuberant; I would leave my outdoor studio, and the trees and bushes seemed to dance, and the sky seemed a bright blue."
"That bright blue color contributed to the piece's title, but in conjunction with another personal association. The key of the piece, D-major (from which there is no true modulation), has been the color blue for me since I was five years old."
"Bright Blue Music continues the compositional development of my past two pieces, but does so with a new-found freedom and lyricism, and a new language: tonality."


"When I see the chalky smoke of resin lifting from the bridges of stringed instruments due to the intensity of the player's bow strokes, that white residue becomes a symbol, a kind of shadow of life felt and lived without apology or restraint. If for me a certain lack of respect is necessary to create something new (respect breeds imitation: respect fosters timidity and subordination) then I would welcome the fearlessness and disregard of the Balanescu Quartet. And welcome I do: the discipline of stamping quarters in the cello writing and imposition of tightly interlocking eigths in the higher strings could subordinate a group to play mechanically or with timid precision; instead, the Balanescu, with furious abandon, throw their bows across the strings with passion and attack. They almost wage war on the compositional severity of the piece. But it is more than just the manner of their playing that I like. In the age of quantized, sampled sound, stringed instruments become the most un-mechanical of instruments. They become, after the human voice, the most direct expression of emotion and freedom. The remaining feeling when the Balanescus' 'smoke' clears the air is a reminding nudge of life itself or at least the possible rewards that come with a life lived without restraint."


"I remember experiencing a kind of cozy cheer in the early days of winter back in suburban Milwaukee, when, on the rounds of my afternoon paper route, I would anticipate with pleasure the forecast of the season's first snow. The cold and the precipitation never bothered me; I loved the season: young girls wrapped up in parkas with only their bright faces showing, outdoor Christmas lights being strung out on the front lawns, warm meals waiting when I got back home."
"Music never literally represents things, but it does evoke feelings, impressions, and sometimes memories. In writing this piece, I noticed that the music that came out didn't just refer to itself – it is my habit to set up certain compositional operations to give each piece its own profile – but that the music seemed to refer to things outside of itself. This is something I discover as I'm writing; it is not that I set out intending to describe the last month of the year through music; rather, the association creeps up on me, as I'm composing."
"I had originally called this piece Rain Changing to Snow because at first the listener might hear a kind of musical 'precipitation', resultant wetness that comes from some of the strings sustaining notes that are moving in the other instruments. And as this develops, the music moves to a more tranquil key, where it sounds as though the rain has turned to snow and there is a strange stillness everywhere."
"But to me the music is about more than meterological patterns. In my goal to write more thematic music which is less process oriented, I believe this music can afford a wide range of responses in the listener. I am against music #that is merely cerebral, and I welcome the simple, physical experience of listening, and responding directly, without undue brain circuitry."

Four Proverbs

"After a melody was found for each proverb, the words remained fixed to those notes. As I developed new patterns and rearrangements of those original melody notes, the corresponding words became scrambled. The lost syntax gradually restores itself as the melody notes fall back into place, resuming their correct order. This restoration of words over long stretches of music creates a growing confirmation of the words meaning. The restoration of the underlying music articulates important structural points within each song. It is my intention that listeners hear clearly what I do with my pitches, and these manipulations can be followed, heard, and understood easier when the words attached are like invariant flags, signalling the movement."

Monday and Tuesday

"Whether one's daily habits are on a free or a fixed schedule, a certain structure is imposed upon us by the inescapable fact of the earth's revolution and the rising and setting of the sun. This periodicity gives life a sense of rhythm which dictates our position within the reality of the natural world and sets up an expectation for recurring events."
"The richness of variety that human beings crave can only be measured against the basic underpinnings that tend to repeat in each day. Any Monday or Tuesday may feature the same activities: making appointments, returning phone calls, meeting friends for dinner, reading a novel before falling asleep. But any two days also offer wonderful shades of variation and the possibly unexpected in, for instance, who it is you're meeting at a given appointment, whose phone call you're returning, where you will eat dinner, or which novelist you've chosen to read before bed."
"This is written to give the listener some sense of the general periodicity shared by the two movements of Monday and Tuesday: the recurring patterns found within sections, and repeated rythms found within phrases. The subtle differences between the Monday movement and the Tuesday movement (a new group of chords, new melodic material derived from those chords, a slightly different rythmic sequence) is heightened by the fact that the musica underpinnings are so similar."
"The comparison between my music and two of the days of the week is not meant to imply some sort of program. It is merely a loose metaphor that invites the listener to hear the structures I am working with, and gain a feeling for the general intentions of the piece."

Saxophone Concerto

"The distinctive edge of John Harle's tone and his boldness of playing has inspired me to be even more obvious in my recent goal of making my music more thematic. The concise nature of themes can contribute to making a more lasting after-image in a listener's mind, and if themes are really simple and bold, the experience becomes almost like an advertising jingle: you can't get it out of your head. That phenomenom interests me, because if listeners really understand the theme, they are better equipped to understand how I go about developing my themes, and more likely to be drawn into the piece's shape and architecture."
"Hence the straightforwardness of the thematic development in my saxophone concerto. In the first and second movements, new notes are added to the theme, at first in a decorative way but then becoming more functional as they are stretched out to accomodate the original theme's note lengths. I also use a pair of woodwinds supporting pairs of mallet instruments to harmonise the theme, and underneath, strings play chords immediately derived from the notes they support. In the third movement, I depart a bit from this kind of writing, and fast, alternating string chords form a background grid to improvisatory melodies for the sax, but at all times the sax plays only notes available in this grid."
"This attempt to make more understandable the process of listening to music is not meant to be 'democratic', or to 'spoonfeed' the audience (what audience wants to be spoonfed?)- it comes from my belief that music is, in the end, a very difficult thing to pin down, and that often that which is simple is really more complex than we think, and that which appears to be complex is actually deceptively simple."

Music on the Floor

"One of the attractive things about writing for orchestra is that with so many instruments going at once a composer can be sure to get, if desired, an acoutically satisfactory sound, sometimes even what might be called a 'wet', pleasing sound. This is achieved by having some instruments holding notes or chords which reinforce other instruments that play foreground material – material consisting of tones relating to the background notes. In this way orchestral music can be easier on the ear than chamber music, and often chamber music is thought of as more 'intellectual', simply because it is acoutically harder for the ear to process. Given the opportunity to write for only nine instruments, I thought, what if I had a self imposed plan of never having a note go by without it being reinforced by other instruments? Would this diminish the dryness? By reinforcement, I decided that a second instrument literally plays the same note as a first instrument, so what can develop is an ever-changing array of criss crossing and intersecting paths of notes; each voice might be involved in different jobs and functions but at any given moment a note is played by at least two players. That may sound abstract, but given the way the music works, you actually hear this quite easily."
"Think about it: why does stereo reproduction sound so much better than monoral? – because the sound in the right ear is being enhanced by the sound in the left, which is slightly different, to give an overall spatial effect. An obvious early thought for my piece (given that the orchestration was two woodwinds, four strings, a piano and two vibraphone players) became: separate the two vibes players, put them on either side of the performance area, and play (sometimes) exactly the same material. Next I thought, since the piano and vibraphones cannot sustain as well as strings and woodwinds can, utilise the keyboards in faster moving music, and have the others hold the same notes, like long shadows. And then after developing some canons between fast-moving notes, I had the clarinet and flute "connect the dots" with matching musical tissue. In another section the piano reiterates vibraphone I, the strings reiterate vibraphone II and the woodwinds hold all the results."
"I figured that three movements for the piece might be more interesting than one, since the action of finishing, stopping and beginning fresh offers clear 'signposts' of interest. There certainly began to be enough material to spill over into more than one movement. Though moods change between movements I and II, and between II and III the material is consistent, since all of it derives from the initial musical ideas that came to me. As the proliferation of ideas got excessive, I went out and bought manilla folders to somehow organise the mess of scattered sheets that grew in piles around the room. Having difficulty sorting them, I came up with somewhat useless labels -"fast music", "3rd hierarchy music", "alternate holding music" – and yet there still was an unnamed bundle of scraps on the floor. To get the sorting over and done with I scribbled quickly "music on the floor" – and somehow I couln't shake it. So an indexing appellation became the title for the entire piece."


"One of the outcomes of Vatican II for the Catholic Church was the emergence in the USA of what we used to call guitar masses. My memory growing up was my family going to church on Saturday night (to fulfil our Sunday obligation) at which all the music would be dictated by an assortment of adolescent girls strumming G major chords with rudimentary folk rythms to the hymns we were supposed to sing."
"I have always liked the challenge of building a piece with the simplest of building blocks and this musical memory certainly qualified as a potential point of departure. The simple opening bars in the guitar, strummed by the soloist in a long-short-long, short-long-short rhythm forms the foundation on which derived melodies, expansions, and key changes build to a contrasting virtuosity."
"Originally I had planned to write a concerto in the standard three movement form, but when a relationship appeared between the reflective second movement theme and what was developing in movement one, the work naturally evolved into a single movement concerto."


"When I am drawn to a particular rythmic groove from an overheard pop song, I scratch my head and think: "I like that, how could I use it?" To me, it's not worth trying to write another of the ten million songs out there. But I've found that if I take a small part of the drum track and assign it to the non-percussion instruments I'm writing for, then interesting things happen. You lose the original context (in this case a baritone sax does not sound like a kick drum), but you gain immediacy and a freshness in the instrumental writing. There will also be a cohesion of compositional intent if you have a strategy for those pitch assignments. When writing this piece, keeping in mind the incredible agility of the saxophone, I wrote a series of rapid notes which form a foundation, or a kind of 'directory' from which I pulled out pitches to assign to those original rhythms (as notes fly by in real time). What fascinates me is that this act of translation seems to completely remove the original reference from my music; sometimes I can't even remember what the original song was that inspired me and, if I do, it's hard to even hear the connection. But what remains is a kind of energy."
"Like December for string orchestra, the piece that preceded July, I'm trying to incorporate contrasting themes and moods together in a single movement work. To me this evokes a wider range of impressions. Instead of single-mindedly exploring one color, as in earlier pieces of mine, the music now corresponds to an experience of time – the energy and heat we find in the month of July, as well as cooling breezes of repose that come, perhaps, in the evening."


"After hearing the premiere for my saxophone quartet July, I realised that the baritone saxophone has a singularly gruff and personable timbre which made me consider the possibility of composing a piece around that kind of instrumental profile. From this starting point I devised the following instrumentation: baritone saxophone, soprano saxophone, cello, bass, two pianos and one synthesizer. I use each instrument in its lower register with a kind of aggressive writing which brings out a 'throaty' kind of music making. The baritone saxophone plays continuous chromatic passages which might remind the listener of an extended jazz improvisation. However, the logic behind the pitches is carefully considered. There is a kind of compositional 'fall-out'. The chunky piano chords derive from the grid that the baritone saxophone provides and compete rhythmically for the downbeat. This piece's extroverted nature never lets up; There is a feeling of a plane taking off, reaching higher altitudes and never returning to the ground until the end of the piece."

Brick Symphony

"To me, I compose with small bits of material,in this case special voicings of triads built with five voices, and no chordal melodic material which resolves in peculiar ways. The entire piece uses these 'fundamentals', they are like building blocks, or bricks. I also like the everyday non-pretentious association we have with bricks – it's something that's all part of our lives – it's kind of democratic. I wanted to get away from the "self cherishing" mode that composers find themselves as they title their pieces "symphonies" and carry with them such unreasonable expectations."


"I composed Jasper, commissioned by the Madison and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestras in honor of the sesquicentennial of the State of Wisconsin, in a small town in Northern Wisconsin called Bayfield. In a house overlooking Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands, I let the cool, brisk air, the friendly small town life, faxes sent from the Chamber of Commerce, a trip to the Recreation Center to swim each day, a poet friend working in the next room, informal dinners at Maggie's, the local restaurant, and other day-to-day details accompany my work on a rented keyboard as the musical ideas developed."
"When I am outside of a city [I live in New York] and work in the country, I tend to look up. The canopy of boughs and leaves – like the dome of a cathedral – comes from single, sturdy trunks. This suggests how musical expression unfolds – it isn't random aural occurrences stitched together. An understanding that music comes out of other music, seemingly organically, is a principle I want to convey. In general, this kind of music making tends to be affirmative, it reinforces our need to believe that actions have semi-predictable results, at the same time, supplies us with our need to be surprised and stimulated, because you never know what kind of branch is going to extend from the original trunk. If my expression enhances the listener's own optimism, I believe a useful exchange has occurred. Optimism, a truly American sentiment, is easily mistrusted. Yet how could our country have developed without it?"
"Titles are powerful sign posts that tend to guide a composition's fate into the future. Titles must arouse interest, form a strong, unforgettable association, convey a sense of the piece, but finally, it must not distract. I fear that distraction. Titles too poetic can lead a listener to question the true intentions of the composer. Indulgence is a problem: what audience wants to smell a composer's dirty laundry? Sometimes the sound and an apparent solidity of a word can issue a more accurate representation of the elusive vibrations shooting through the air. 'Jasper', with its suggestion of a darkened, almost forest green color, its allusions to a semi-precious stone with Biblical roots, and the common notion of something scintillating projecting from it are all associations I welcome."

Lucent Variations

"'Lucent' means luminous, which derives from the Latin word 'to shine.' Something lucent gives off light, but it can also be translucent and clear. Instruments are combined, in my piece, Lucent Variations, so that their vibrations reinforce each other, creating acoustical shine. The music grows from small, simple ideas to more enhanced longer ideas, in a kind of continuous variation. It feels almost like a pageant moving by -like a parade of electrical light. In fact, the original title for the piece was 'Children at Night:' the wonderment upon childrens' faces, illuminated by the lights of a nighttime parade, was an image that was unexpectedly moving for me. A parade is fixed in its structure-the floats don't change positions. But as it moves by, it is ever changing from the spectator's point of view. It is a good example of how something consistent and unchanging is at the same time ever-changing from a different point of view."
"People often ask "why is your music so buoyant: why does it sound so happy?" Such music might be distrusted…life is rather difficult and painful, why turn one's back on that cruel reality? I say music is not a photograph, or even a reflection of life. Music, instead, is meant to offer meaning, and spiritual uplift. It is a kind of celebratory prayer for me, not journalism or confession."
"Lucent Variations was commissioned by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for their 40th anniversary, and given its premier September 18th, 1998 at the Ordway Theater in Saint Paul, Hugh Wolff conducting."

If you have any comments, additions or questions I would be really pleased to hear from you!

Copyright © David Charlton, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999.

Last Updated by David Charlton on Saturday, 6 February, 1999

This is the 'Unofficial' Web Page for Michael Torke

The music of Michael Torke is published by Boosey and Hawkes

Source attribution: Boosey & Hawkes, Michael Torke