The orchestral version of Automotive Passacaglia is based on an
earlier work of mine composed for piano and percussion. Despite
it's initial scoring, I had always felt that the original had the
scope and potential for an orchestral version - something I was
finally able to realize upon receiving a commission from Michael
Morgan and the Oakland East Bay Symphony.
The title of Automotive Passacaglia was actually lifted from a
Henry Miller essay of the same name, which contained the following
"It was the first time I'd ever seen what makes a car go. It
rather beautiful, in a mechanical way. Reminded me of a
steam calliope playing Chopin in a tub of grease."
Outside of providing me with a convenient title, the music has
little to do with the essay. The title itself, however, is relevant
in two regards. First, it is a passacaglia, i.e. a variation form
in which a passacaglia "theme" is repeated in one form or another
throughout the work's entirety. I envisioned Automotive Passacaglia
's 12-note theme as a vehicle which transports the listener through
diverse musical terrain, first taking shape in the middle register
(muted piano and percussion) before gradually branching out and
gaining momentum during its course.
Second, the title does refer to a rather stubborn obsession with
rhythmic propulsion (or "motor rhythm") which occurs in almost all
of my music. In this case the rhythmic excitement takes place
against the backdrop of an underlying metric pattern which operates
throughout: each phrase of the passacaglia theme consists of 13
beats organized into patterns of 4+3+6, a rather instinctive choice
made with regard to how I felt the piece should "breathe"
(4=exhalation, 3=inhalation/tension, 6=exhalation/repose).
Returning to an earlier work can be a tricky thing: you can't
ignore the range of influences you've encountered since composing
the original, yet at the same time changing it too much would be
analogous to altering a previous diary entry. I've tried to
incorporate the general feel of the original not only by capturing
its hard, brittle drive orchestrally, but also by using the piano
and percussion instruments themselves as important reference
points: the orchestral textures emerging outward from the piano and
percussion in the beginning and dissolving back into them at the
Automotive Passacaglia was composed under the auspices of the James
Irvine Foundation, and was funded in part by the Composer
Assistance Program of the American Music Center.