When the Cincinnati Symphony asked me to write a piece for them that somehow connected with Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, I decided to take their request more literally than they might have expected. Each of the four movements in TRACK 8 in some way parallels or “tracks” the four movements of the Beethoven. Sometimes I use the Beethoven literally. Other times I recast the material, but always maintaining some audible connection to the original. One could almost call it a Beethoven remix.
The fact that I directly use material from Beethoven’s symphony, might well seem to some as offensive, as if there is some desecration in the practice. I grew up on Beethoven and, unsurprisingly, am in awe of the power and breadth of his music. My intention in TRACK 8 is not at all to do violence, but to pay homage to this wonderful, enduring piece. But the wider point I wish to make is that, for me, Beethoven doesn’t seem “old” or “a relic of the past,” but something totally vital, alive, and relevant today.
In the first movement, Signposts, exact quotes of the first movement of Beethoven’s 8th appear as short fragments arranged in chronological order. In between these strongly chiseled chunks of Beethoven, I have interpolated more atmospheric music, which has almost no motivic connection to the Beethoven. Two different worlds coexisting. One, strong and assured. The other, somewhat adrift. Only at the end of the movement does the Beethoven become assimilated. We hear the opening motive that begins the symphony presented in a slowed down, euphonious, nostalgic transformation.
The second movement, Metronome, once again “tracks” with the second movement of the 8th Symphony. In addition to using literal quotes, it takes off from what is often remarked as the clock-like, metronomic quality of the repeated chords that are heard throughout the movement. Here, that material is recast as a somewhat off-kilter clock formed from pizzicato violins, piano, and percussion. This occasionally gives way to the actual Beethoven, which tends to dissolve quickly back into the prevailing texture. But, in this movement, Beethoven’s 8th is not the only piece quoted. The clicking of the clock made me think about time. The Beethoven was written toward the beginning of the 19th century and here I was writing my piece toward the beginning of the 21st century. The early 20th century formed a midpoint and I thought to include some quotations from then, as a bridge between the two worlds. I thought of two pieces which were not only totally incongruous with each other, but also with the Beethoven and, I felt, with me too. The two other pieces quoted in this moment are Anton Webern’s Op. 6 orchestral pieces and a song of Irving Berlin, “When I Lost You.” Weird, arbitrary choices? Yes! But that’s what interested me. It’s satisfying to bring things together that don’t seem to fit. It says that things are more interconnected than we might think! The movement ends with the Webern and Irving Berlin pieces sounding together simultaneously.
The third movement, Stretched Time, engages with the minuet from the Beethoven. It is often remarked that Beethoven’s 8th lacks a bonafide slow movement, as the second movement, with it’s clock-ticking figuration and marking “scherzando,” doesn’t seem particularly slow or characteristic. Richard Wagner, weighing in on the matter, suggested that the minuet was actually the slow movement, and that the second movement should be performed as a scherzo. This struck me as totally absurd. But it did influence my recasting of the minuet. Here, the opening material of the Beethoven is presented very slowed down, creating a floating, dreamy atmosphere. I imagine Beethoven’s theme suffering a parallel fate to the clock in Dali’s painting. In the last movement, Source Code, Beethoven’s whimsical, high energy last movement, takes on a more snarky, sarcastic tone. The phrase “source code” could be applied to my whole piece, as easily as to just the last movement. Although, of course most of the piece sounds nothing like Beethoven, nonetheless it is his amazing symphony that lurks behind every note.