Stele III for James Tenney (2006)

Sandeep Bhagwati

string quartet

Commission: Quatuor Bozzini, with support from the CCA


Program Notes

In 2004 I re-read Victor Segalen's early 20th century series of poems Stêles, obituary and commemorative texts in the traditional Chinese manner. I have since written several “Steles” for different instrumentations. Each of them is a hommage to somebody I loved and admired. It is hard to realize that a series such as this must go on and intensify until I myself die. Perhaps it is my way of preparing for that eventuality.

Stele III was written as a reaction to James Tenneys death. I never met Tenney, and only discovered his music some years ago. Back then, when listening to his music I felt an immediate connection through his music to issues, techniques and ideas I was interested in, too. I was then invited to a residency at CalArts where I knew Tenney was teaching. I looked forward to the residency that was to start in April 07 and to meeting this great composer. It was not to be, he died in August 2006. A few months later, I awoke one December morning and wrote this Stele III - the first piece I wrote after settling in Montreal.

Stele III is written in a mode I call Comprovisation: somewhere between improvised and composed music. The violinists have a written part, but many different possibilities of reading and playing it. The viola and cello are related in the type of material they use, but the way they use it is totally improvised: the only constraints they would have are instructions on how to play together.

All musicians create the piece by listening intensely to each other. While all the sounds and the overall emotion of the composition will remain recognizable in all performances, the individual incarnation will be unique for each. Over the past 5 years I have written many comprovised works - all of them are inspired by the North Indian way of music making where the emotion reigns supreme, is embodied by a set of rules and pitches - and each performance is but an improvised instance of a musical entity called “raag” - a way of perceiving each moment as timeless and ephemeral at the same time.