On my new violin concerto, “Breaks and Breaks” for Jennifer Koh and the Detroit Symphony:
Throughout the year, I read and re-read Angels in America by Tony Kushner, one of my favorite works of art. Its epigraph, from Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Testing Tree”, became a kind of mantra for me, and I often found myself repeating it as I walked the streets of Brooklyn:
“In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking. “
In the new year, as I began writing my violin concerto, that mantra—particularly the phrase “breaks and breaks”—still stuck in my mind. It seems an apt descriptor of this new work that, though divided into seven short movements and therefore often “breaking” character, is played without pause and therefore has no actual “breaks.”
“Breaks and Breaks” is both palindromic and cyclic in form. In the opening—“How many other things have wings that I didn’t know had wings?”— a lithe, light violin line soars above the orchestra. It is cut off abruptly as the second movement breaks into a violent and rhythmic dialogue between soloist and orchestra.
A brief reminiscence of the opening melody in the third movement leads into the fourth, “I see it feelingly,” which is the emotional core of the work. In this movement, the violin plays a slow and plaintive melody, filled with buzzing microtones and punctuated by the bass drum. As the violin gradually soars upward, the orchestra builds to an explosive climax, while the violin plays a series of increasingly elaborate ornaments against loosely aligned metallic figuration in the piano, harp, percussion and strings. After a brief interlude, eight tolling bells lead to yet another climax, this time longer, more intense, and more sustained.
The fifth movement, “It dissolves now,” a kind of cadenza, emerges from the embers of the fourth’s decay. Violin arpeggios are refracted through sustained orchestral strings played very close to the bridge (sul ponticello), creating a sea of unstable and fluctuating overtones. The figuration gradually reveals the original folk-like melody, breaks into the sixth movement, a recapitulation of the second, but now lower and punctuated by low, highly resonant chords.
The work closes with a brief coda, “It would not decay.” For the first time in the work, the violinist puts down her bow and plays pizzicato. As she plays the opening melody, the orchestra sustains her plucked notes, so that they cannot decay, instead creating of fog of sonorities. The soloist plays a final and stratospherically high iteration of the melody that closes the work suddenly, finally breaking.