for countertenor, bass clarinet, two percussionists, and piano
duration c. 00:05:00

The Great Figure (1921) – William Carlos Williams

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
firetruck
moving
tense
unheeded
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

Program Note:

The Great Figure (2012) is a setting of William Carlos’ Williams poem of the same name for countertenor and chamber ensemble. The poem describes the solace one pedestrian finds in the “No. 5” on the side of a fire truck. Amid the claustrophobic cacophony of the city, a moment of respite is found in which something that would almost always go unnoticed is brought to the forefront as a thing of beauty. The syllables in each line of the poem outline a sort of Doppler effect, which I have striven to emulate in my setting. Since the poem so heavily focuses on the number 5, I use various rhythmic accent patterns outlining 5, in addition to the pentachord [C, Eb, E, Bb, B] and its transposition [Eb, Gb, G, Db, D]. When combined, the notes from these two pentachords create the first nine notes of a synthetic scale that can be derived from superimposing the Cmaj13(#11) and Ebmin13 chords, which is used later in the piece. Car horns in the 1920s were tuned primarily to C and Eb; I chose to focus on these pitches in my setting to better evoke the clamor of a city in the 1920s.

Performance History:

DateTimeLocationEventPerformers
11.27.128:15pmUrness Recital Hall, St. Olaf CollegeFresh InkEmory Tower, countertenor; Jonathan Sanchez, bcl; Paul Millette, perc; Dan Frankenfeld, perc; Michael Betz, pno