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About this Piece

“Noctiluca” refers to the bioluminescent marine microorganisms (Noctiluca scintillans) that cause coastal-region waters to glow bright blue at night. This enigmatic phenomenon, also referred to as “sea fire” or “sea twinkle,” is the result of chemical energy transformed into light by living beings. Noctiluca scintillans cause water to emit flashes of blue light when reacting to mechanical stress, such as when waves or passing boats agitate the water. This imagery, as well as the collective movement patterns and escape behavior of schools of fish, swarms of bees, and flocks of birds, influenced the textures of the composition.

The piece also pays tribute to Kaija Saariaho, the late Finnish composer, whom I greatly admire and whose work has had an influence on my own music. Her work Neiges (1998) for eight cellos influenced my choice of instrumentation, and the movement “Aiguilles de glace” makes a brief appearance beneath the surface in Noctiluca. The incorporation of accordion hints at Saariaho’s use of electronics and her appreciation of the organ. The accordion also bridges the [instrument] families in the ensemble with its hybrid qualities—playing like a keyboard, executing percussive attacks, and sustaining sounds like a string instrument.

Like much of Saariaho’s music, Noctiluca explores the resonant shimmering of harmonics. These gradually form a composite melodic line with exponential dynamic swells hocketing between the cellists. This line returns at various moments, further adorned and growing wilder, until it is presented as a calm, slow chorale in canon at the end of the piece, with a lyrical solo-cello melody soaring above. Intricate in timbral and textural detail, Noctiluca reveals the wide expressive range of the cello, highlighting both the independent voices within the ensemble as well as the collective power of the group.

I am grateful to the cellist Chris Gross for working closely with me as I developed this piece. —Zosha Di Castri