Soleil Noir

Commissioned by the Ciompi Quartet

As I was thinking about what I might write in response to a commission from Duke University’s Ciompi Quartet, the memory of a scene from a film popped into my mind. The film was Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) and the scene was the moment when an extraordinary expression appears on Catherine Deneuve’s face. She’s trying to understand what the Duke is telling her about the “black sun” of autumn. I perceive a feeling of intense foreboding in her look, but also wonder, innocence, and perhaps even desire.
That moment was enough to get me going:  in the fall of 2019, I began working with musical ideas that communicated a sense of relentless, unavoidable approach. But the approach of what? Probably nothing good. I finished the quartet in February 2020, before the pandemic became a world-changing reality, and I don’t make any claims to prescience. Besides, music about current events doesn’t interest me very much. I can only say that I suspect something of Buñuel’s unease about modernity–often expressed in the surreal and absurd aspects of his films–must have transferred to my quartet.

I often feel a similar tension regarding technology in my work. I’m interested in what computers can do for me as an artist, but I almost never grant them unrestricted–or unedited–autonomy. I consider the computer a tool in the same way a pencil or a metronome is a tool. I like to remind people that the book is a technology, albeit a very old one, for portable data storage.

Thinking this way, I’ll admit, can lend a contrarian tint to one’s perceptions. When I notice I’ve been laboring under an assumption, I tend to contradict it immediately. There’s an example or two of this in Soleil Noir:  relentlessness and resignation; violence and delicacy; the treachery of fastness.

The Ciompi Quartet premiered Soleil Noir in April 2021, after the pandemic canceled most of 2020’s live concerts. The video of that performance is posted here along with the program note.