Thomas Adès, In Seven Days

The title of Thomas Adès’ piano concerto In Seven Days is, of course, an allusion to the Biblical account of creation. With each movement titled after the aspects of nature referred to on the corresponding day of creation, one naturally expects some parallelism between the structure of the music and the literary structure of the creation narrative. Indeed, Adès provides just enough numerology to satisfy curious minds without overloading the music with symbolism. Many sections of the piece have time signatures in seven, and the prevailing number of voices in the piano part increases progressively in each movement, from one to seven. However, Adès’ genius in this music goes far deeper than mere mathematical ingenuity, as he brilliantly manages to embody the essence of creation and the natural world on every level of the piece’s structure.

After an spiky, energetic orchestral introduction, the latter part of the first movement (“Chaos – Light – Dark”) and much of the second (“Separation of the Water into Sea and Sky”) are built around long chromatic lines in contrary motion. Somewhat surprisingly, these lines do not expand the register outward as if to represent a nascent expanding universe, but actually converge towards middle C. However, Adès is constantly sneaking them back out by octaves (almost like a Shepard-Risset glissando) to stretch out this process over several minutes. Thus, Adès has foregrounded register as a primary compositional element, which serves as an apt figure for the concepts of “void,” “space,” and “expanse” in the creation narrative.

In the third movement, “Land – Grass – Trees,” Adès retains register as a primary compositional element, while adding another process on top of it. This movement (my personal favorite) is a majestic passacaglia based on a spiraling chord progression with smooth voice-leading which transposes itself up a semitone every 8 chords.[1] Thus, the pattern must cycle through all 12 transpositions of itself before duplicating itself an octave higher. Over the course of the movement, the pattern repeats almost four full sets of 12 cycles, thus rising about four octaves in register. However, Adès does not deploy it in a static fashion as in traditional passacaglias; instead, the rhythmic values of all the instruments and thus the speed of the progression become gradually faster with each set of 12 cycles. This recursive process, musically akin to fractals in geometry, suggests the organic growth patterns of living plants branching out geometrically into smaller and smaller leaflets and fronds. One can almost feel the first plants and trees solemnly unfolding towards the sky.

Literary scholars of the Old Testament have noted how the creation account is structured to match days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, and 3 and 6, and Adès’ music does the same. Thus, movement 4, “Stars – Sun – Moon,” returns to the massive, long-lined trajectories of the first movement, but with a much more active texture in the piano part, as if the primordial light has now been differentiated into multitudes of stars. Similarly, movements 5 and 6, two fugues dedicated to the “Creatures of the Sea and Sky” and “Creatures of the Land” respectively, continue to develop the elements of register and recursive growth even further. For example, the first fugue has a lengthy exposition in the winds, ranged from high to low (flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons),[2] after which the strings take up the subject in order from low to high. However, the distinctively polyphonic nature of the fugal process, as opposed to the more diffuse, almost sound-mass textures of the previous movements, suggests the “teeming” nature of the animal kingdom highlighted in the creation account: many different instruments are doing essentially the same things, not clashing against each other, but not totally in harmony with each other either.

The piece ends with a brief “Contemplation” representing the seventh day, one of rest. However, Adès has one last secret of structure to reveal: the ending of the piece seems to fade back into the beginning, so that the last two chords of the piece are the same as the first two. Thus, the entire piece is itself a circular process which ends where it began. Indeed, the piece can be seen as a self-encapsulating fractal as well: the melodic motive which gradually coalesces out of the opening “Chaos” section underlies each of the movements, like a giant kaleidoscopic theme and variations. Yet this is itself a marvelous metaphor for our natural world, in which the same patterns (again, often fractals) often recur on vastly different levels of structure, from molecules to mountains, cells to cyclones.

In Seven Days is also a multidisciplinary collaboration between Adès and Israeli video artist Tal Rosner, creating what they call a “visual ballet.” Rosner overlaid video and still shots of the two venues which hosted the premieres of the work (London’s Royal Festival Hall and Los Angeles’ Disney Hall) into an abstract montage which spawns a healthy dose of fractals of its own (visible at times in the recording linked above). The film seems to represent Rosner’s visual interpretation of the patterns of the music in architectural terms, both in the sense that his subject matter is strictly buildings, and that he is translating the structure of an intricate work in one medium into another medium, purely through symbols, without the aid of verbal signifiers. Which is, of course, exactly what Adès has done in the music.

[1] Actually, the pattern transposes up a perfect fourth with each cycle of 8 chords, creating a sort of circle progression. However, each of the three voice-leading strands (the prevailing texture since this is the third movement) skips down to the next lower voice at some point during each cycle in a sort of three-way voice exchange, so that the net ascent in register is only a semitone per cycle. In addition, the three voice-leading strands are often interwoven in the orchestration and difficult to distinguish aurally.

[2] In a manner strongly reminiscent, I think, of another work by a British wunderkind—The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.

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One thought on “Thomas Adès, In Seven Days

  1. Pingback: The Power of Recurrence: Further Thoughts on Form | deformingprisms

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