In Memoriam Gustav Meier
What's Underfoot began as a processional, the idea being a piece of stately and deliberate tread that would grow with a sense of mounting gravity and intensity. From the standpoint of pure sound, it is conceived as a progressive revelation: there are six harmonic regions based on the twelve chromatic pitches arranged vertically in the order closest to their appearance in the overtone series. Each of these has same structure, but is transposed to a different fundamental. In turn these six are cycled through six times. With each cycle, more and more of the lower overtones are revealed, so that the sequence of emerging lower pitches are 12-11-10-9-8-7-6 in Cycle I, 12-11-10-9-8-7-6-5 in Cycle II...down to 12-11-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 in Cycle VI. So things that at first were airily ambiguous become increasingly rooted in an acoustic substance and reality.
The concept is due to discussions with my student Aaron Wyanski, who's taken a kind interest in my harmonic practice, and suggested this approach in a piece of his own. I was so interested by it, that I quickly stole it. He's such a different composer from me that I don't feel I'm literally plagiarizing him, but he certainly knows of my theft. At the same time the director and visual artist Robert Wilson came to Hartt and lectured, and while describing his work process for Einstein on the Beach, he showed a grid of materials add their transformations that helped me make the organization of my regions within their cycles much clearer.
Finally, this piece is unusual for me; usually I tend to figure out all the durational proportions of the sections in advance (and usually in ratios analogous to the harmonic intervals between regions). But in this case when I had completed a draft I knew the piece was too long, slow, and ponderous. It needed to breathe differently, have the possibility of lighter tread mixed with the heavier. So I intervened with changes of tempo: a gradual acceleration from one cycle to the next, always 6 metronome ticks higher. And in addition I seeded into each cycle brief presages of the next increase of speed.
When the sixth cycle is reached, each successive region slows as the music moves in retrograde through the six tempos back to its opening speed.
In this way I feel that I took an abstract structure in a "time out of time" and then "massaged" it so that it could live "in time". As a result it shed about 25% of its original length.
That describes the initial composition. Almost as soon as I completed the piano piece, I knew it needed to exist in an orchestrated form as well. So unusually for me, I've worked from a de facto "short score" to realize this version. The choice of colors enhances the work's sense of growth and a hopefully noble expansion into increasingly open and radiant spaces.