In Pursuit of Feeling (2014-15)

Instrumentation: flute, clarinet, oboe, tenor saxophone, trumpet, horn, bass trombone, 2 percussionists (vibraphone, xylophone, tubular bells, 2 tom-toms, snare drum, suspended cymbal, triangle, 2 wood blocks), piano, 2 violins, viola, 2 cellos, double bass.

First performed at Amherst College, Amherst, MA on 8 February 2015, conducted by Mark Swanson.

Submitted as a senior honors thesis in music composition to the Amherst College Music Department. Awarded summa cum laude and the Sundquist Prize in musical composition and performance.


Program Notes

In Pursuit of Feeling depicts an exhilarating journey of 16 instruments who begin a united quest to “pursue feeling”, that is, to search and find the most authentic and genuine expression in their beings. The quest is fraught with rough patches, tense moments of animosity, and bitter disagreements. The string quartet decides to rebel, disrupting attempts to achieve unity and eventually causing a musical catastrophe in the third movement, Forlorn Journeys. Little by little, however, their antagonism is neutralized, the ensemble gradually gains back its footing, and by the last movement it has attained some sort of Pyrrhic victory, finally reaching the genuine expression that they were all looking for, but not without wounds.

The journey begins in Skeptical Interruptions with a few instruments nervously testing out the waters with their short, individual fragments, which become more and more unified. The major unifying musical figure in this movement is the “skeptical” motive, a 2-bar melodic figure which is intoned at the very beginning by the vibraphone and is reused many times in the rest of the movement. It follows a truncated sonata structure in which a crisis is reached after the recapitulation of the first theme. The string quartet steals the stage and intones the “mindless” motive, symbolizing despair and confusion. The movement ends with a neurotic, thumping ostinato in the piano that is cut off abruptly.

The second movement, Different Worlds, depicts the tension between the two worlds inhabited by the soloists (tenor sax and second cello) and the string quartet. Despite initially vowing to separate themselves, they are drawn to an inevitable clashing of sound worlds, and by the end only a grudging truce is achieved.

Forlorn Journeys consists of three different journeys: the first one is an idyllic pastorale, the second one is inspired by the sounds of Sundanese gamelan, and the third one is a tender and lyrical love theme. None of these journeys are successful. As the string quartet once again grabs the music by the neck, a major catastrophe occurs and we are left with the ashes of the three failed enterprises.

In the fourth movement, Scherzo: A Whirlwind of Love and Madness, the first cello separates itself from the rogue string quartet and cooperates with the piano and percussion to tell an unstable yet heart-wrenching tale that provides the first glimmers of hope of synthesis between string quartet and the rest of the ensemble. The next movement, Intermezzo, only features the winds. It is an atonal fugue with a brief moment of reflection in the middle, providing the winds with an opportunity to reach a consensus among themselves.

Respiring Reflections is the emotional climax of the work. The second cello coalesces with the string quartet to undertake a journey inspired by Schubert’s sublime String Quintet in C major. As with Schubert’s Quintet, there is no ultimate victory in this movement, reflected in its palindromic A-B-C-B-A structure. However, in the middle of the last A section, the string quartet’s antagonism is finally neutralized, as the love theme from Forlorn Journeys is revisited, this time with wistful longing instead of cynicism. The music of Schubert unwittingly becomes a catalyst for transformation, providing the impetus to conclude our emotional journey.

In the final movement, Of Ensconcing Passions, all the instruments merge together into a coherent unit. In this newfound collective identity, loose ends are tied together, the xylophone propels a gleeful dance of death, passions are pursued, and in the very end, all participate in a final push towards a sunny E major conclusion.

Overall, In Pursuit of Feeling is inspired by the sounds of both my childhood and those I absorbed while in Amherst College: Schubert, Mahler, Schoenberg, Shostakovich, Ives, Pauline Oliveros, Michael Schelle, and the gamelan music of West Java. Its narrative of uncertainty, conflict, and victory depicts my own personal journey in composing the piece, as I had to harness all of my musical and compositional faculties to write a piece for an ensemble larger than I had ever tried before. This work, then, serves as the culmination of my exciting four-year musical journey at Amherst, which hopefully is a harbinger of even more wonderful experiences with music in the few years to come.