Making Sense of It

Making Sense of It is a chamber piece in three movements for six instruments and pre-recorded sound. It was commissioned and premiered by the New York New Music Ensemble in 1987, and performed extensively by other groups for a few years, but is only now in 2024 available in a newly engraved edition.

The piece was inspired by James Merrill’s amazing book-length poem, The Changing Light at Sandover. When I originally read the book in the mid-80s, I felt it was sort of a 20th century answer to Dante, and absolutely loved it. Re-reading it recently is like re-visiting a lost world, one that had far-reaching impact on my life. It’s deeply queer, and simultaneously optimistic and desolate – a domestic love story used to express an immensely imaginative and ambitious cosmology. Simultaneously camp and utterly heartfelt, there’s a core of loneliness to the vision that all these years later kind of breaks my heart: the God of this universe is Biology, who is directly experienced only through Morse-code-like signals indicating that it does indeed survive, and is looking for confirmation that it is not alone.

Those signals are embedded in the pre-recorded track of last movement of the piece. This is what they say:

IVE BROTHERS HEAR ME BROTHERS SIGNAL ME

ALONE IN MY NIGHT BROTHERS DO YOU WELL

I AND MINE HOLD IT BACK BROTHERS I AND

MINE SURVIVE BROTHERS HEAR ME SIGNAL ME

DO YOU WELL I AND MINE HOLD IT BACK I

ALONE IN MY NIGHT BROTHERS I AND MINE

SURVIVE BROTHERS DO YOU WELL I ALONE

IN MY NIGHT I HOLD IT BACK I AND MINE

SURVIVE BROTHERS SIGNAL ME IN MY NIGHT

I AND MINE HOLD IT BACK AND WE SURVIVE

In addition to the transliterated God B quotation, I chose epigraphs for each movement of the piece. They were originally meant to stand in lieu of conventional program notes, which in the 80s used to be deeply insufferable.

Perhaps these epigraphs tell you something about the music: see what you think.

I. Every modification or tremor enters its own little sensory adequate to itself, and it enters the point adequate to it; thus since all the little sensories are various, all the various things enter. 

Wherefore now in every sensation there are infinite things which concord. 

Emmanuel Swedenborg

II. When they say that heat is merely the movement of certain globules and light the centrifugal force that we feel, we are amazed. What! Is pleasure nothing but a ballet of spirits? We had such a different conception of it, and these feelings seem so far removed from those with which we are comparing them. The feeling of fire, the warmth which affects us in quite a different way from touch, the reception of sound and light, all seem mysterious to us. And yet it is as straightforward as throwing a stone. It is true that the smallness of the spirits entering the pores touches other nerves, but they are still nerves.

Blaise Pascal

III. A- Yes, one could fit in in that way. It’s finally a matter, perhaps, of fit. Appropriateness. Fit in a stately or sometimes hectic dance with nonfit. What we have to worry about.

Q- It seems to me that we have a great deal to worry about. Does the radish worry about itself in this way? Yet the radish is a living thing. Until it’s cooked.

A- Grete is mad for radishes, can’t get enough. I like frozen Mexican dinners, Patio, I have them for breakfast, the freezer is stacked with them–

Q- Transcendence is possible.

A- Yes.

Q- Is it possible?

A- Not out of the question.

Q- Is it really possible?

A- Yes. Believe me.

Donald Barthelme

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The three movements of Making Sense of It are part of my ongoing project, A Book of Days, and recordings can be heard by visiting January 4th, April 2nd, and September 22nd.

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The instrumentation of Making Sense of It is flute/piccolo, Bb clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion (1 player on vibraphone, xylophone, and mallet percussion controller) along with a pre-recorded track.

Here is the score.

There are three synth sounds needed to perform the piece, which were originally made for the Yamaha DX7. The patches have been ported to Dexed, a free open source multi-platform software synth you can download here.

The patches are the first three in this SysEx file.

For performing materials, please click the buy button below. The suggested price is $50, but you can choose your own price based on your situation, with my thanks for supporting this low-key way of publishing:

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