For millennia the stories with which we interpret the celestial sphere and our place within it have been deeply bound up with a cultural understanding of ourselves. So many creation myths begin with a basic account of the shape of things, the Sun and the Earth and the stars, that it is scarcely a surprise that both ancient and modern astronomers tend to stray into theology.
The heliocentric model, in particular, has a kind of primeval elegance: the planets sweeping around the Sun with a timeless regularity that mirrors our own night and day, our own circadian rhythms, our own beating hearts. The illustration of orbiting bodies around the Earth on the cover of the original score for Thomas Adès’s Violin Concerto: Concentric Paths (2005) is taken out of a star atlas from 1660 fittingly entitled The Harmony of the Universe. The cover makes explicit what we already hear in the music: a sense of the spatial, in both meanings of the word, in terms of three dimensions as well as of the infinite.
The playful Adès, while only in his twenties, incorporated a movement into 1997’s Asyla that orchestrated the drug-induced exaltation of the nightclub dancefloor, teasingly entitled ‘Ecstasio‘. Concentric Paths was a shift to the more austere; and yet, the British composer’s fierce experimentation had only intensified. Two short and fast movements, ‘Rings’ and ‘Rounds’, precede and follow the longer, slower ‘Paths’, in what Adès describes as a “triptych.” As these movement titles, and the paradoxical subtitle of the piece, Concentric Paths, all suggest, the concerto is concerned with the circular and the cyclical, and the sense of the infinite that these project.
The brilliance of the Violin Concerto is in the immediately tangible shapes that the solo violin carves into space. In the breathtaking first movement, the violin arrives as if in precarious orbit around the chamber orchestra, until it is suddenly launched into perilous, melodic flight. In the second movement, meanwhile, which begins much as a baroque chaconne – not entirely surprising for Adès, who has reworked the music of composers like François Couperin – the orchestra appears to drift inexorably forward, while the violin tears, beautifully and unsuccessfully, at this linear stricture. The accumulated tension is slowly released in the restless third movement where, in Adès’s phrase, the orchestra follows “stable cycles moving in harmony at different rates.” The violin, meanwhile, appears at times caught in the orchestra’s harmonic cycle, and at times entirely free, floating dizzily above in the vast expanses of the sky.
I. The violin melody begins as if in mid-rotation of a cycle from 0:00, until the explosive drift off course at 0:33. Listen for the almost impossibly high-pitch warbles of the violin after 2:04, as it seems to fade into distant, stratospheric heights.
II. The movement begins with a wonderful mix of bowed and plucked timbres until the violin’s chords are interrupted by brusque orchestral interjections at 0:40. The lilting violin line begins at 1:20, interweaved with an increasingly somber accompaniment, building further at glacial pace until the resolution at 6:55. From here the violin melody soars exquisitely, though it is denied full resolution.
III. In the final “fast” movement, the woodwinds and violins introduce the harmonic cycle from the start, buttressed by the lower strings and brass. At 0:55 the violin melody begins, which at 1:51 takes up the orchestra’s initial theme. We return to this theme at 4:07, which builds into an accelerating climax until the abrupt final chord.
Image: Magnetism, Ahmed Mater (2012)