Michael Torke (b. 1961)
Bright Blue Music
Publisher: Boosey & Hawkes
KSO performed: 2009, 2000
One of the characteristics of much music composed in the last 30 years or so is a new sense that the bitter arguments about musical style that have characterised the history of music in the 20th century are now an historical irrelevance. A composer need no longer feel weighed down by dogma, and can employ whatever techniques and styles he feels suit whatever it is he wants to write. This is an attitude that the grandfather of modern American music, Charles Ives, would have approved of: he once wrote, “Why tonality as such should be thrown out for good I can’t see. Why it should always be present I can’t see. It depends, it seems to me…on what one is trying to do, and on the state of the mind, the time of day or other accidents of life.”
This brings us to Michael Torke and Bright Blue Music, a piece filled with startlingly straightforward harmonies. He came to public attention early, with two pieces – Ecstatic Orange and The Yellow Pages – written while he was still a student at Yale. These were the first two parts of his series of pieces collectively known as Color Music, and the reader will need no further prompting from a programme note to deduce that Bright Blue Music also belongs to this sequence.
Torke gives two reasons for his strategy. One is that by using the simplest, most obvious harmonies he is freed to concentrate on other things: “Once this decision was made and put in the back of my mind, an unexpected freedom of expression followed. With the simplest means, my musical emotions and impulses were free to guide me. Working was exuberant: I would leave my outdoor studio and the trees and bushes seemed to dance, and the sky seemed a bright blue.
“That bright blue color contributed towards the piece's title, but in conjunction with another personal association. The key of D major, the key of this piece (from which there is no true modulation) has been the color blue for me since I was five years old.” The result is a ten-minute burst of uninhibited exuberance and joy, or as the Chicago Tribune’s critic John van Rhein puts it, “like John Adams getting stoned and listening to Der Rosenkavalier.”