15 solo strings
String Ensemble, String Orchestra
10 vln.2 vla.2 vlc.db
First Performance
19.2.1973, Round House, London,UK: BBC Symphony Orchestra/Roger Smalley

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Programme Notes

Strata was composed between May 1970 and April 1971, in response to a commission from the Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields*.1 Fifteen players (10 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos and 1 double bass) sit symmetrically in a semi-circle on the platform. Mainly they are subdivided into 3 quintets (5 violins on the left, 2 violas+ 2 cellos + double bass in the middle and 5 violins on the right), more rarely into two equal halves (with the double bass belonging to either half). There is only one tutti section in the entire work. All the instruments are slighly amplified in order to add presence to the generally quiet music and to make the subtle changes of tone-colour clearly audible.

Using 5 Form-Units and 32 Moments a form and its content are assembled for each performance. The sequence of events is fixed before rehearsals begin - this is in no sense improvised or "chance" music. The 32 Moments (short, highly differentiated fragments of music) must fit into an overall form which has only 25 sections. Consequently two or even three Moments may be heard simultaneously from different groups.

Strata does not require a conductor**. The individual groups play together as chamber music ensembles. The leader of the group which is playing cues the entry of the next group at a time which seems musically appropriate. The players are also required to improvise build-ups and fade-outs (anticipations and memories) on the basis of the fully-notated Moments.

A single chord, consisting of all eleven intervals from a major seventh to a minor second stacked upwards in decreasing size, unifies and makes possible the variable form of the work. The Tutti Moment and the 4 Moments for the left and right halves of the ensemble all use this fundamental chord. The Moments for the 3 quintets (9 for each) are based on single intervals from the fundamental chord, which are extended to form melodic/harmonic modes.

Brief quotations from works by some of my favourite composers are woven into the texture from time to time. These are always associated with the prevailing harmonic structure (for example a fragment of Debussy's Jeux appears during a Moment based on major seconds - ie a whole-tone scale). For those who wish to try and identify them the composers quoted are Debussy, Schoenberg, Boulez, Wagner, Ligeti, Stravinsky, Mahler, Webern, Stockhausen, William Blitheman and Beethoven.


*In fact The Academy of St-Martins-in-the-Fields never performed Strata. In his review of the concert in which the first performance should have taken place (The Times, 24th June 1971) Alan Blyth reported Neville Marriner telling the audience that the work "had become something very different from what he had ordered, much longer and calling for spatial effects not exactly suited to a small, dignified, company hall in the city" [Stationer's Hall]. This is absolutely true (although I wonder about the "dignified").
The premiére was eventually given by members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by myself (and not Pierre Boulez, as stated in the published score). I had already taken the first few rehearsals because Boulez was in New York. When he returned and realised the complexity of the score, plus the fact that I was already well-advanced in the preparation of it, he very prudenly suggested that I should carry on and do the actual performance myself.

**This appears to contradict note 1. Strata was indeed conceived to be performed without a conductor. Nevertheless it does require someone to order the musical material and direct the rehearsals. To dispense entirely with a conductor would have required a larger number of rehearsals than were available at the time. Since much of the work cannot be conducted anyway (with 2 or 3 tempi going simultaneously) my role was more that of a general overseer and giver of cues for the entrances and exits of the various groups. Without doubt my preference is not to have a conductor, because I believe that only an ensemble group which knows the piece sufficiently well to do without one will be able to give a truly successful performance of it.

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