for violin, cello & piano
First performed by Third Angle Ensemble, Lincoln Recital Hall, Portland OR, USA, 26 & 26 April 2012
My Piano Trio is about acceleration and deceleration. Throughout the first half, musical lines in the cello and piano parts constantly speed up or slow down relative to one another – largely the writing is constructed of long chains of linear intervals, so that fast material comes as a result of the acceleration of slow material (and vice versa). The fluctuating speeds return in the second half, although the two instruments are more independent, adding lines or figurations at will and joining periodically with the violin. The violin has only one role – to accelerate throughout the Trio’s fifteen minutes. It begins by only playing every 30 seconds or so, and inexorably speeds up until a sort of ‘vanishing point’ is reached at the end of the piece.
There is something about acceleration and deceleration that can be quite unsettling, especially if it is relative to a unit which we expect to be of constant speed. The acceleration of one’s train relative to a stationary one can make it seem like the stationary train is moving backwards. Similarly, I set up metronomic, regular ticking in almost every line in the piece, which is undermined by small fluctuations in speed so that one line becomes a note or more ahead or behind. The listener feels clunky gear changes, as previously reliable demarcations of time seem unsteady – even unsafe.
Psychologically, small accelerations or decelerations relative to a basic speed can seem like huge deviations in subjective time – even minor changes to the violin’s established acceleration prove unsettling to the listener because humans intuitively feel that a clock ticking (or even accelerating) at a constant rate will remain at that rate. The Corpus Clock in Cambridge is a clock that plays with exactly this perception. Completely accurate every five minutes, the clock lurches unevenly from second to second, the grinding mechanism driven by the terrifying metal insect escapement known as the ‘Chronophage’ (from the Greek meaning ‘time-eater’). The clock hints at the inconstant nature of time under Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity, as well as our highly subjective experience of the ‘speed’ of time’s passing based on our age, surroundings and activities. But whether it seems to accelerate or decelerate, the clock, like time itself (and indeed the violin in this piece) is only ever going in one direction.