What do Debussy, Stravinksy, and DNA have in common?

10:37, 17th June 2019

Composer Alex Mills explains his new commission, Crossing Over, for Cheltenham Music Festival

If someone asked you to name the top 10 pieces that changed the course of 20th-century classical music I’d bet good money that Debussy’s Prèlude à L’Après Midi d’un Faune (1894) and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913) would feature pretty highly.

It’s for this reason that being commissioned by the Cheltenham Music Festival to write a new piano duo to sit alongside these two giants (presented in their potent two-piano forms) was such an honour, albeit an absolutely terrifying one. Not least because both composers hold a special place in my heart, as I know they do for many other musicians and listeners. As a child, it was hearing Debussy’s Children’s Corner that got me hooked on learning the piano while Stravinsky’s Rite is what first made me set on becoming a composer. How, then, could a new piece of mine do justice to the weight and significance that these pieces have both for me and for the millions of people who’ve ever encountered them?

I felt I had two choices. Either completely ignore them, forget they ever happened, and forge my own way through, or totally embrace them and find a way of musically conversing with their enduring allure. Given my deep fondness for both pieces, and my apparent inability to resist a challenge, I chose the latter.

My starting point was to think about what links the two pieces and how my new piece could enter into a kind of dialogue with them on a shared theme. There are lots of interesting connections, not least that both were choreographed by Nijinsky for the Ballets Russes a year apart (1912 and 1913) and that Debussy joined Stravinsky at the piano in a performance of the four-hands version of The Rite at a private party of French critic Louis Laloy. However, I was more interested in identifying underlying themes and subject matter that could be used as a thread to link the two works with a new piece today.

This led me to start thinking about how both pieces deal with universal ideas of sex and creation, in particular notions of primal sexual energy. For Debussy’s faun, it’s a dreamy eroticism and playful sexual longing for the crimson-fleshed nymphs of Mallarmé’s poem. In Stravinsky’s pagan rite, it’s the initiation of nature’s own elemental sexual reawakening of Spring via virgin sacrifice.

I decided to put the theme of primal sexual energy under the microscope, literally, by basing my new piece on the biological process of meiosis: the special type of cell division that produces the sex cells (eg pollen, spores, sperm, eggs) in all sexually reproducing organisms.

In meiosis, the genetic material of a parent is divided and shuffled in a process called ‘crossing over’ (which became the title of my piece), to produce sex cells. During sexual reproduction two parent sex cells fuse together to form a new organism with a full and uniquely shuffled set of DNA. Meiosis ensures that endless genetic variation is possible.

To create Crossing Over, I have used the well-known opening calls of the Debussy and Stravinsky pieces as ‘genetic material’ and shuffled their pitch and interval content, both within themselves and with each other, to create a myriad of new melodies, chords, sequences and harmonies. The nine-minute piece traces a loose journey through the stages of meiosis as the two pianos mix-up, divide and spin the original material into constantly shifting textures and new strands of musical information.

One difficulty I faced when combining the pitches of both opening calls is that you end up with a block of 10 chromatic pitches (the famous opening flute call of the Debussy, after all, spells out a chromatic tri-tone in itself). My initial experiments ended up sounding like 12-tone serialism, which is interesting but worlds away from the two sources and my own soundworld. The challenge, then, became about finding ways to use the material in a way that would still musically link to the original sources whilst becoming something entirely different, just like the process of meiosis does in reordering genetic material to create an entirely new set of DNA.

It turns out that, in constructing such an elaborate metaphor and developing such a meticulous process to compose the piece, I have tricked myself into overcoming my original fear of how to write a piece that could both engage with these two musical mammoths, while still feeling completely like a piece of my own. I hope that, in some small way, Crossing Over provides listeners with a new way in to exploring two of the greatest pieces of music by two of the most influential composers of all time.

The premiere of Crossing Over will take place at 9.30pm on 6 July at Cheltenham Town Hall. 



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