Missing Words II (2016)

for Brass Quintet

Commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival and School, Robert Spano, Music Director
for the American Brass Quintet

Program Note:

“Missing Words II” (2016) is the second in an ongoing series of compositions composed in homage to Ben Schott’s book Schottenfreude (Blue Rider Press/Penguin Group), a collection of newly created German words for contemporary life. The German language has the capability to create new words through the combination of shorter words and can express complex concepts in a single word for which there is no direct translation in other languages. Such words include Schadenfreude, Doppelgänger and Wanderlust, and these have been adopted into use in English. With his new book, Ben Schott proposes new words missing from the English language that we can choose to adopt into our own vocabulary.

My piece is a series of short, playful musical responses to the definitions of three of Schott’s new words. The first movement responds to Schott’s word “Leertretung,” which he directly translates as “Void-Stepping” and defines as “stepping down heavily on a stair that isn’t there.” This movement is a brief tone poem that imagines the quintet as animating some kind of human-like mechanical contraption that slowly climbs up a staircase and keeps going past the final step. I treat this final “leetretung” moment in slow-motion, where, as Schott cites, we first experience a feeling of “incredulousness” followed by “resignation.” Our climbing creature then recovers and walks away on level ground.

The second movement is inspired by Schott’s word “Kraftfahrzeugsinnenausstattungsneugeruchsgenuss,” which he translates as “New Car Smell.” In this movement, I imagined sitting in a brand new car and sniffing wafts of its unique scent. The musical scent that I imagine here is hard to pin down exactly and changes slightly on each whiff, with a tinge of something special in it. Here a trio of instruments repeatedly plays the same chord, but each of the notes are traded between the instruments, creating a single harmony that can be experienced slightly differently each time it is played.

The final movement reflects on the word “Brillenbrillanz,” which translates as “Spectacles-Luminosity,” and Schott defines as “the sudden, innervating clarity afforded by new glasses.” I am very nearsighted, and so for me the difference between wearing glasses and not is especially pronounced. The memory of getting my very first pair of glasses inspired this musical response. As a child at the time, I had not realized how out-of-focus the world around me was before I experienced the clarity with my new glasses. To explore this musically, I ask the trumpet and trombone players in the quintet to each remove one of their slides. With these slides removed, by pressing a valve each player can either send the sound forwards out of the instrument’s bell, or backwards out of the opened slide. Two worlds are thus put into conversation – the brilliantly clear and rich sounds projecting towards the audience from the instruments’ bells, and the blurry, “out-of-tune” sounds emanating out through where the slides were removed.

“Missing Words II” was commissioned by the Aspen Music Festival and School, Robert Spano, Music Director, for the American Brass Quintet. The first work in the series, “Missing Words I” (2014), is scored for chamber octet and was composed for the Berlin Philharmonic’s Scharoun Ensemble.

– Eric Nathan


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Duration: 10 minutes


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