PENDULUM for Piano and Orchestra

This work was commissioned by SAMRO (South African Music Rights Organisation) for a premiere performance in 2010 by Malcolm Nay with the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra. I did not give Pendulum the title “Concerto” as the piano part frequently blends into the orchestral texture as another instrumental colour/timbre and does not necessarily demand that it should be perceived as a separate virtuosic entity. Having said that though, there are some technically very challenging figurations for the piano. As was the case with my mentor and teacher, György Ligeti, I frequently dream of ringing bells and chiming clocks and the unrelenting mechanisation of our century. The concept of the ‘pendulum’ not only embraces this aural image but also suggests balance and inevitable movement; a cycle that ‘normalises’ the extremes of life but with an underlying dynamic pulse.

Pendulum is a work in three movements with three distinct moods and characters, though the 2nd movement (misterioso) follows segue into the lively 3rd. The 1st Movement, the longest of the three, is stately and thematically-based; it opens with the clanging of the tubular bells in falling 4ths, accompanied by drum percussion and bassoon. This descending bell figure is taken over by the strings before the first entry of the piano introducing the characteristic 4-note syncopated motif. The material throughout this movement is dominated by linear and vertical entities in 4ths with animated dialogue between the piano and orchestra. The piano comes into its own in a cadenza-like solo which is eventually joined by the bells as it accompanies the piano on its return to the opening orchestral texture.

The 2nd movement is rather dark, brooding and mysterious with dissonant orchestral sound blocks and vibrating tone colours, punctuated by plucked string pizzicatos. It recreates a mood similar to the one found in the slow section of my Tempus Fugit with nocturnal shadows, underlying tension and foreboding. The role of the piano is to cut through the opaque texture with rapid arpeggiations using diminished 7ths as the chord basis to lift the atmosphere into a spiritual realm as expiation for the terrors of the night. An illusion is created of a quick tempo but in reality this is the ‘slow movement’. The arpeggios are transformed into impassioned melodic entities using the same small intervallic structures.

The 3rd movement picks up where the 2nd left off, but this time banishing all bleakness, and morphing into a rhythmic texture gleaned from a generic and composite African rhythm and sound-world; namely 12 pulses per measure divided into aggregates of 2s and 3s, forming a polyrhythmic 5+7 cycle. This underlying cyclical pulse drives the music forward in dance-like shapes taken over by the different instrumental groups, punctuated by piano dialogues. As with all my African-influenced works, the percussion section plays a pivotal role.

Pendulum presents the intersection of different sound worlds but ones which are located in the context of 21st century South Africa.