Infinite Landscapes


The evocative title Infinite Landscapes invites listeners to contemplate some of the vast and numerous spaces that Elliott Miles McKinley (1969-) suggests musically. The astronomer-artist provided the two works on this album with musical instructions and visual titles that convey various moods, summon colorful images, and invite deep contemplation.


McKinley composed Three Portraits between June and September 2012. The SOLI Chamber Ensemble commissioned this work as well as his Fleeting Moments (1994) and Symphony for Four Players (1996). Olivier Messiaen, in his Quartet for the End of Time, also uses the instrumentation of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Perhaps for that reason McKinley’s first movement “July Watercolor (with high energy)” seems to pay homage to that work with bird-like trills, non-retrogradable rhythms, and chord cluster piano commentary. The watercolor presents numerous combinations of tone colors before concluding with an ascending skyward gesture in the piano.


In movement two, “August Watercolor (Reggae-Pop),” we encounter the performance instruction “With a sappy pop-ballad feeling,” which might explain the un-McKinley-esque diatonic chords in its introduction. In this portrait McKinley treats the stylized pop-ballad as a point of departure leading to the next section “with a reggae feel.” The clarinet and violin move in tandem before entering “A dream.” Here McKinley explores the lowest register of the clarinet while the violin and cello present lyric melodies. Suddenly, off-beat eighth notes like a ticking clock lead listeners to “Wake up!” After a “sloppy and drunk” passage in the clarinet, the pop-ballad returns. The scene concludes with a “Sunset.”


The final movement, “September Portrait (Groove Variations),” suggests an urban landscape through an electronic track whose beat enlivens the sustained tones in the live ensemble. After the electronic groove stops, the ensemble continues the energetic rhythms of the groove with fast notes. Arch-shaped runs in the violin introduce for the second time the electronic beat, which accompanies a lyrical clarinet melody. Just like after the first electronic passage, the live ensemble continues invigorated before ending with a final pop.


Commissioned by the prestigious Martinů Quartet, McKinley composed his String Quartet No. 7

between July and December 2013, and revised it in May 2014. This formidable six-movement quartet was premiered on May 28, 2014 in Prague in Old Town Square, and was recorded over the following two days. The work is in memory of the Quartet’s founding violist, Jan Jisa (1957-2013).


In movement I, “Cathedrals of Light and Shadow,” McKinley explores one of the most fundamental elements in music, the perfect fifth. The movement demonstrates McKinley’s masterful compositional discipline and pacing. He presents numerous instrumental pairings of fifths through

expansive yet gradually accelerating rhythms. The movement builds to a passage of radiant sixteenth notes before closing with an allusion to the initial idea.


Movement II is entitled “Scherzo and Fugue.” The waltz-like scherzo features McKinley’s characteristic rhythmic drive with lively syncopations and changing meters. After a pause, the scholarly fugue begins with a 5-measure subject that uses all 12 chromatic pitches but is not treated in a strictly dodecaphonic (Second Viennese School) manner. The answer a fifth lower, and subsequent subject, occur conventionally, yet the final answer occurs unconventionally a fifth below the initial answer. This gesture represents a subtle exploration of the fifths idea from the previous portrait, thus providing compositional cohesion.


Movement III, “Three Vistas,” is marked “with longing and reflection” and evokes an introspective character through lengthy tones and a plaintive quasi-recitative for cello. This passage leads to tall towers of fifths alternating between soft and loud. The movement fades away to sustained chords of extended harmonies.


Movement IV, “A Little Dance,” features one of McKinley’s favorite techniques, pizzicato (plucking of the string). The movement begins with pizzicato in the viola, which introduces an expressive melody in the cello. The pizzicati create a light bouncy atmosphere appropriate for “a little dance,” though dancing to such changing meter and syncopation would prove challenging.


Movement V, “Riding into the Sky,” projects its “light, not too heavy” character through repeated sparkling eighth notes that lead to longer rhythms. After a pause, the viola and cello animate the texture and lead to a lively syncopated quasi-jazzy section, which is to be expected of a composer named after Miles Davis. Following a “noble and expansive” section of appropriately protracted notes, repeated twinkling notes lead to expressive half-steps above pairs of gravitational perfect fifths.


Movement VI, “Coda-Toward an Endless Golden Sunset,” begins by repeating the beginning of the quartet. After a series of descending thirds, which Johannes Brahms also used to evoke a sense of poignancy, a passage of broadly sustained tones marked “enveloping twilight of golden-purple” dies away sweetly “dolce, morendo al fine” into the infinite landscape.


—William Helmcke, November 28, 2015, Katowice, Poland


William Helmcke is a PhD candidate in Music Theory at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (2016). He spent two years as a Fulbrighter to  Poland affiliated with the University of Warsaw. Helmcke holds degrees from the University of Minnesota and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has published articles about Chopin, Górecki, and music theory pedagogy, among others.


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