I had the idea for Solen in 2001, if in an abstract way, during my first trans-Atlantic flight in many years, leaving Canada for my adopted Finland. Specifically, I was captivated by the phenomenon of a very short night resulting from taking off at sunset and flying east toward the dawn. There was great poetic power in suddenly encountering the sun face-on, after having it at my back what seemed like only moments earlier.
Two years later, the composition was spurred on by the experience of seeing different versions of Edvard Munch's 1911 mural Solen (The Sun) in Oslo, including the artist's early sketches for the painting. I found its dazzling sunbeams and vivid primary colors breathtaking, something I later tried to capture in the clashing, diatonic chordal sonorities and coruscating surface patterns of the music. I also loved his painting right to the edge of the frame, making the rays from the central sunburst appear to reach beyond the physical border of the image.
The shape of Solen eventually grew out of these visual ideas, starting with a burst of sound, like a vast machine gathering energy, lifting off, and slowly ascending through alternating strata of activity and stasis toward a distant, crystalline point, then gradually returning to the opening music. The rapid succession of harmonic gates through which the music passes functions as a gaining of musical altitude, constantly spinning the sound materials in new directions on the way toward the central climax, a huge spectrum based on C major – a chord that, at least to me, has always sounded and felt like direct sunlight.
I'd had an inkling on that first trip that I was leaving my homeland for a very long time. During the long process of conceptualizing Solen, and the short period of composing it, I clearly remembered the excitement I had felt at the time, chasing that sunrise toward my new home. Notions of flight and sun were accompanied at the back of my mind by thoughts of travel and discovery, which I suppose lent the music a bright, optimistic tone, as well as a forward momentum I tried to preserve, even in sections of relative stillness where the engines are switched off and the music is allowed to glide under its own power.
One of the things I most admire about Munch and other painters, like Van Gogh, is their way of integrating the texture of their canvas or backing material into the final work, rather than simply using it as a surface to hold up the paint. Following this idea, the orchestra of Solen at one point crosses over the border between music and noise, as if to make audible the rushing wind outside the machine.
Although quite irrelevant to the listening experience, it occurred to me early on as I played with materials that I was writing a fairly rigorously structured twelve-tone piece, albeit in a minimalist, essentially tonal North American way. Having only recently developed some sense of comfort working in the border regions between many cultures – national, linguistic and aesthetic – I found this realization highly satisfying, and thereafter did my best to forget it.
© Matthew Whittall Instrumentation
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