Phrygian Gates and China Gates

for piano (1977)

China Gates written for pianist Sarah Cahill. Duration: 5 minutes

Phrygian Gates commissioned by Mack McCray. First performed, March 17, 1977 by Mack McCray, pianist, Hellman Hall, San Francisco. Duration: 22 minutes

Phrygian Gates and China Gates

Phrygian Gates and its little companion piece, China Gates, are products of a critical period in my career as a composer. Together they comprise what could be my “opus one” by virtue of the fact that they appeared in 1977-78 as the first coherent statements in a new language. Several earlier pieces from the 1970’s, American Standard, Grounding and some tape compositions, seem in retrospect to be inventive but still searching for a means of holding themselves together.

Phrygian Gates shows a strong influence of Minimalist procedures, and it is for sure the first piece of mine to be based on the idea of repetitive cell structure. Not only the American Minimalists, but the lesser known English practitioners like Howard Skempton, Christopher Hobbes and John White were on my mind during the composing of this piece. The 1970’s was a time of enormous ideological conflict in new music when the assumptions of post-Schoenbergian aesthetics finally began to be challenged by composers who saw little future in the principles of serialism. I for one saw an equally bleak future in John Cage’s methods which struck me as also too grounded on rationalist and formalist principles. Making compositional decisions by consulting the I Ching did not seem all that far removed from making them by consulting a tone row. Minimalism, although an admittedly reduced and at times naive style, offered me a way out of this bind. I found the combination of tonality, pulsation and large architectonic structures to be extremely promising.

Phrygian Gates shows in as clear a way possible how I approached these potentials of Minimalism. Paradoxically it also reveals the fact that from the start I was already searching for ways to convolute and enrich the inherent simplicities of the style. (The phrase, often attributed to me, that I was “a Minimalist bored with Minimalism”, was the remark of another writer, yet it was not far from the mark.) Phrygian Gates is a 22-minute tour of half of the cycle of keys, modulating by the circle of fifths rather than stepwise à la Well-Tempered Clavier. The structure is in the form of a modulating square wave with one state in the Lydian mode and the other in the Phrygian mode. As the piece progresses the amount of time spent in the Lydian gradually shortens while that given over to the Phrygian lengthens. Hence the very first section, on A Lydian, is the longest in the piece and is followed by a very short passage on A Phrygian. In the next pair (E Lydian and Phrygian) the Lydian section is slightly shorter while its Phrygian mate is proportionally longer, and so on until the tables are turned. Then follows a coda in which the modes are rapidly mixed, one after the other. “Gates,” a term borrowed from electronics, are the moments when the modes abruptly and without warning shift. There is “mode” in this music, but there is no “modulation”.

What makes Phrygian Gates still interesting for me is the topography of its form and the variety of keyboard ideas, many of which suggest the rippling of waveforms. Sometimes these waves are smooth and tranquil; sometimes their surging and stabbing figurations can be as violent as a white-water expedition. In most cases I treat each hand as if it were operating in a wave-like manner, generating patterns and figurations that operate in continuous harmony with the other hand. These waves are always articulated by short “pings” of sound, little signposts which mark off the smaller internal units in a ratio of roughly 3-3-2-4.

Phrygian Gates is a behemoth of sorts and requires a pianist capable of considerable physical endurance and with an ability to sustain long arches of sound. China Gates, on the other hand, was written for young pianists and utilizes the same principles without resorting to virtuoso technical effects. It too oscillates between two modal worlds, only it does so with extreme delicacy. It strikes me now as a piece calling for real attention to details of dark, light and the shadows that exist between.