The Elements

Glen Newton's composition for the 1983 West Bank School of Music composers' workshop was a four-movement suite, "The Elements", depicting the physical world as the ancients respected, feared, and misunderstood it:

Element.   n.f. [elementum, Lat.]
2. The four elements, usually so called, are earth, fire, air, water, of which our world is composed.

--- A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson, Ll.D., Sixth Edition (1785)

Movement Dave Edminster Jon C. Nelson Glen Newton Dave Sletten Maggie Brinich Matt Barber
Water tenor sax 2 trumpet (open and cup muted) tenor sax 3 tenor sax 1 piano (normal, strummed & plucked) glockenspiel, bell tree & Asian bells
Air bassoon synthesizer flute 2 flute 1 piano bell tree
Earth bassoon euphonium tuba clarinet piano (at Walker); organ (at Wallace) glockenspiel, snare drum & tenor drum
Fire alto shawm, bassoon & rackett synthesizer piccolo trumpet (open and straight muted), E-flat trumpet, soprano trombone (with solotone mute) & alto horn bass clarinet piano bamboo wind chime slap, temple blocks, snare drum, vibra-slap, siren whistle & suspended cymbal

Larry Weller conducted "The Elements" and several other of the pieces on the concert, which was presented Sunday, May 22, 1983, at the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center of Macalester College and Sunday, May 29, at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

"The Elements" was the last selection on the first half of the program. The program notes had this to say about it:

Water is based on a five-note motif introduced by the plucked strings of the piano which reappears often as a fragment of a countermelody in the other instruments.

Air begins with the sound of the wind. As time progresses, the wind acquires a focus and its glissando is transformed into a rapid scale-like passage. This is echoed by the bassoon, piano and mark tree, as the flutes provide an airy, sustained contour. The movement ends as it began, with wind.

Earth begins with a hymn-like introduction. The first theme, stated by the euphonium, leads into a 4-part hymn, with heavy vibrato. On the repeat, the wind instruments, sans vibrato, are joined by the keyboard and percussion.

Fire combines a tarantella and a march to depict the most destructive of the four elements.

The Water motif was created mechnically from the letters of the word. If we continue naming the lines and spaces of the staff to cover the whole alphabet, the letter "W" is a B; "T" is an F; and "R" is a D. Combining these with "A" and "E", which are already note names, and bringing them all within the same octave, we have the descending line B-A-F-E-D, the motif of this movement. Excerpt from page 1 of the piano part showing the motif B-A-F-E-D introduced by the pianist plucking the strings with a guitar pick. Bigger picture is 71K.

Air depended heavily on the capabilities of Jon's analog synthesizer, a Roland SH-3. For example, the following instructions appear at the top of the synthesizer part for Air:

VCOs off; resonance around 8; hold around 2; LFO #2 at 1, connected to first mode; white noice to VCF; sensitivity around 3; ADSR around 8.5, 8, 4, 8; VCF and VCO envelope on ADSR; cutoff around 4; sample time = 10; sample level around 8; noise level = 10; VCA around 2. Page 1 of the synth part. Bigger picture is 69K.
Earth was the simplest to transcribe for other ensembles. Glen later created saxophone sextet and brass dectet transcriptions of this movement. Still later the hymn motif became part of the movement Earth in Bur Oak Suite, and three-movement work for trombone choir and a four-movement work for brass band. The beginning of page 1 of the piano part. Bigger picture is 68K.

Fire sounded a lot like cartoon music --- particularly Dave Sletten's bass clarinet solo, Dave Edminster's rackett (sausage bassoon) solo, and the siren whistle Matt blew while Glen played an alto horn solo. It was a definite crowd pleaser. Excerpt from page 3 of the bass clarinet part.  Bigger picture is 61K.


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Tuesday, April 14, 2020.

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