One of the smallest works receiving their first performance at HCMF 2014 was Howard Skempton‘s two-minute Oculus, for solo piano. Despite such brevity, it’s a beguiling curiosity of a piece; indeed, ‘Skemptonian’ might be a good adjective for music that is weird, amusing and a bit baffling all in equal measure, as Oculus is. Which is not to say it’s incomprehensible; although Skempton speaks of using two major and minor chords (thereby employing all 12 notes of the chromatic scale – an oblique reference to the work’s dedicatee, Christian Wolff, a fan of Webern’s music), that seems from a listening perspective a bit of a red herring—or perhaps a MacGuffin.
The music’s entire emphasis on the juxtaposition of triads puts harmonic movement at the epicentre of one’s focus, and in this respect the piece uses an aurally very obvious circular pattern of chords:
||: Gm, D♭ (x3), Bm, E♭, Am | F, E♭ | Bm, C♯m (x3), G, F, E♭ | A, E♭m | Fm, G (x2), Gm, Fm, A, B | Am, B :||
(Skempton omits the first three chords at the start of the piece, effectively beginning partway through that group of chords)
That’s straightforward enough, but if one examines what’s going on with the major and minor chords independently, they each reveal a generally rising sequence of octophonic (whole tone) scales:
major: D♭ – E♭ – F – E♭ – G – F – G – A – B – B – D♭
minor: B – A – B – C♯ – E♭ – F – G – F – A – G
None of which really explains why Oculus sounds so wonderfully accessible and alienating at the same time. No-one composes tongue-in-cheek paradoxes like Howard Skempton.
The world première of Oculus was given in St Paul’s Hall by Philip Thomas.