The City in the Sea (2017)
Malla Vivolin, alto flute, Atte Kilpeläinen, viola, Päivi Severeide, harp
alto flute, viola, harp
Published by Fennica Gerhman
This piece takes its title from the eponymous poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Although I’d originally intended to keep my distance expressively from his Gothic world, Poe’s central image – a decaying city in the dimming West ruled by death, slowly sinking into watery oblivion – was a powerful one. Perhaps inevitably, the piece took on shades of the slow-motion humanitarian disaster unfolding on Europe’s southern shores, bringing out undertones of desperation, pursuit, obsessive, elegiac reflection, and ultimately despair as it slides into the depths.
The piece opens with a long, halting solo for the viola, its breath-like tones slowly becoming a descending lament. The alto flute joins in, their sinuous lines writhing around and through static chords in the harp, much like a prominent image in the poem:
“…light from out the lurid sea
Streams up the turrets silently[…] Up many and many a marvelous shrine
Whose wreathëd friezes intertwine
The viol, the violet and the vine.”
From this contained opening, the music grows into a frenzied chase, a gently rocking, lullaby-like dance, and finally a dirge-like procession. The end grows increasingly violent, using harsh extended techniques on the instruments, tearing at them, as if to give vent to the latent fury underlying the music’s grieving tone.
The City in the Sea was commissioned by the Finnish Viola Society for the 2017 Tampere National Viola Competition.