Cloudline (U.S. premiere, LA Phil commission with generous support from Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting)
Length: c. 13 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes (1st=alto flute, 2nd=piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd=English horn), 2 clarinets (2nd=bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd=contrabassoon), 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, bass trombone, percussion (cowbells, woodblock, splash cymbals, and marimba), harp, piano, and strings
About this Piece
In Song of the Universal, Walt Whitman wrote, “Over the mountain growths, disease and sorrow, / An uncaught bird is ever hovering, hovering, / High in the purer, happier air. / From imperfection’s murkiest cloud, / Darts always forth one ray of perfect light, / One flash of heaven’s glory.”
At the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in Paris hangs a handwritten sign that reads, “Some people call me the Don Quixote of the Latin Quarter because my head is so far up in the clouds that I can imagine all of us are angels in paradise.”
Gavin Pretor-Pinney notes in his book The Cloudspotter’s Guide that, “[a]lthough cloudspotting is an activity best undertaken with time on your hands, it is something that everyone can enjoy. Clouds are the most egalitarian of nature’s displays, since each one of us has a good view of them, so it really doesn’t matter where you are.”
Georgia O’Keeffe was perpetually captivated by the sky. To her friend, photographer Anita Pollitzer, she wrote: “The Eastern sky was all grey blue—bunches of clouds—different kinds of clouds—sticking around everywhere and the whole thing—lit up—first in one place—then in another with flashes of lightning—sometimes just sheet lightening—and sometimes sheet lightning with a sharp bright zigzag flashing across it—I walked out past the last house—past the last locust tree—and sat on the fence for a long time—looking—just looking—at the lightning—you see there was nothing but sky and flat prairie land—land that seems more like the ocean than anything else I know—There was a wonderful moon. Well, I just sat there and had a great time all by myself—Not even many night noises—just the wind—”
In the 1960s, O’Keeffe painted her Sky Above Clouds series which was inspired by the new visual perspective provided by the burgeoning commercial flight industry. Her largest canvas, Sky Above Clouds IV, hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.
This sampling of thoughts, visited again and again, rests behind Cloudline, my musical offering to the infinite canon of cloud-inspired musings. At the center of the piece is a repeating chord progression (or cloud progression as I came to think of it) that is derived from a sequence of delicate clarinet multiphonics (two or more tones produced simultaneously). Though the progression morphs, fractures, and reconstitutes itself in sometimes unrecognizable ways over the course of the work’s 13 minutes, it remains an ever-present guide. This treatment of musical material follows in the footsteps of other works heard on this program including the Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and the last movement of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, in which expansive, dynamic music unfolds against quite humble repeating bass lines.
While writing Cloudline, I started watching the BBC show Killing Eve. A few episodes in, I had this comical image of a decadently clad Villanelle, the show’s feral and mercurial assassin, swinging giddily from cloud to cloud as she prepared to pounce on her next victim. As fate would have it, Stokowski’s arrangement of Dido’s Lament came to feature quite prominently in the third season of the show, as did the Royal Albert Hall itself. It struck me as oddly and hilariously serendipitous, given the very origins of this piece.
Cloudline came to be during our year and a half at home. As is perhaps evident from the strange collection of untethered threads, half-thoughts, and non sequiturs that have woven this lyrical hurricane of a piece into existence, it seems, in retrospect, to be an expression of the tempestuous and bizarre texture of life during those trying yet often tender 16 months. –Elizabeth Ogonek