i want to make a bold, seemingly absurd statement about the orchestral work behind today’s Advent Calendar door. The more time i’ve spent with Adagietto by Linda Catlin Smith, the more i’ve perceived it as having no movement in it whatsoever. Let me explain.
What i don’t mean is that it’s static. Smith’s music does tend to sidestep such conventions as substance, development, progression and narrative, but i’ve yet to hear anything by her that lacks some sense of fundamental movement, of one kind or another. i’m reminded of how my primary perception of another of Smith’s orchestral works, Nuages (premièred at the 2019 Proms), was that it had “no surface at all – or at least, one that’s only discernible for brief, fleeting moments of time”. Adagietto, it seems to me, is the opposite: a vast, complex surface, its details fixed in time, and the ‘movement’ in the work is akin to a process of slowly moving our gaze across this surface, at times moving slightly closer or further away, focusing and refocusing, resulting in ever-changing experiences of colour, hue, density, perspective, clarity and shadow. What makes this yet more rich and multi-faceted is the impression that it’s actually a semi-transparent surface of a larger three-dimensional object, offering glimpses of more far beneath.
All of which brings to mind the most extensive surface we know of: the ocean. Of course, the ocean is the apogee of something in a continual state of utmost convoluted movement, but what connects its surface to the music in Adagietto is a fundamental relationship between unpredictability and unity. The ocean’s waves, splashes and froth, so unfathomably random at the small scale, become understandable and almost predictable as we consider its broader size and shape, and the way that it’s driven by deep, powerful forces beneath.
So it is with Adagietto; the unexpected emergence of an individual idea here or there takes its place within a much larger, unified sonic identity and behavioural palette. We’re continually pulled between immense, weighty rolling material – chords overlapping and infiltrating each other – and lighter lines that emerge apropos of nothing, sing for a time (some almost inaudibly) before being subsumed back into the orchestral mass. Despite the heft implied in much of the piece, it’s striking the extent to which the music’s density can decompress and separate, exposing a calm seam of harmonic purity (such as a clear perfect fifth) or a curious chugging rhythm. Ultimately, its a measured heft that Smith has created, one that allows a great deal of delicacy and fragility to thrive in its metaphorical waters. While its easy to become intoxicated in the slow, endless kneading and churning of Smith’s harmonic currents, there’s something especially lovely about the more discrete eddies that we hear along the way. These range from something as simple as two gently clashing flutes high above everything else (around a minute in), to short sporadic wind chords that break out for a short time, to a full-blown episode of lyricism around halfway through, melodies and countermelodies allowed time to float and meander while, for a few precious moments, everything else is suspended.
There’s one other quality Adagietto shares with the ocean: that it could continue seemingly forever. It doesn’t, of course; it ends as it began, in fact, on the single pitch D; but in between these notes there’s no sign whatever of a horizon, just a frozen glory extending into infinity.
The world première of Adagietto was given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volkov at the 2017 Tectonics festival in Glasgow.
I have always loved listening to orchestral music, in particular the slow movements of the classical and Baroque eras. I find that slow movements allow for more complex harmony to be heard, and for all of the subtle details to come through. I think of Adagietto as a love letter to the orchestra, exploring subtle shifts of colour. I am attracted to still life paintings, where the shadings and light create an atmosphere of reflection or contemplation. In this work I wanted to ‘paint’ with thick layers of colours as well as transparently thin textures. For me, the piece is like a small sea of harmony, with occasional melodic lines arising from it. The work was supported by an Individual Artist Grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. I am very grateful to Tania Miller and the Victoria Symphony for giving the work its world premiere.
—Linda Catlin Smith