Night, sleep, death and the stars (2008)

flutes (C, alto, piccolo, bass – one player), harp
20 min.

The title is the final line of a short poem from Walt Whitman’s last years, A clear midnight, one that has haunted me since I first read it many years ago, demanding further exploration, likely because it encompasses several themes that continue to figure prominently in my music – with the exception of death, a topic whose more gothic associations I have gratefully relegated to a more Romantic past. Having all these ideas present in the same piece, though, was something new, so I felt the need to approach them in a fresh way, deliberately going against the manner in which one might expect them to be treated. Thus, this night is still and wondrous, yet unnerving under the surface, full of noises. Sleep brings no rest; rather, the mind begins to work overtime, ideas racing around and multiplying in great profusion. There is no mourning, nor even a shade of physical death, only peace and meditation; and the stars are not small, cold and distant, but blazing hot and surrealistically close, like the vision of the heavens of Van Gogh’s La nuit étoilée.

Owing to the four distinct images, my usual single- or bridged-movement approach to form quickly gave way to the idea of four separate pieces, each based on different musical materials. After Hanna Kinnunen requested that her part make use of multiple flutes, particularly the low members of the family, it naturally followed that I should write one piece for each instrument, thus including the piccolo, which makes its appearance (in an intentionally perverse way) in the “death” movement, leaving the bass flute to inhabit the stars.

Night, sleep, death and the stars was commissioned by Hanna Kinnunen and Lily-Marlene Puusepp for première in July 2008 at the Crusell Week in Uusikaupunki, Finland on a concert series titled – entirely coincidentally – “Night Serenades”.