The title Carillon Sky refers to a fantasized image that stimulated me to compose this music — that of a sky full of very soft tinkling and flickering bells, as well as very clamorous pealing, ringing, resonant bells, through which one floats. As if a Cathedral's Bell Tower becomes a metaphor for natures ever changing landscape and the violin soloist is a distinctive bird soaring, interacting, circling and swirling in the resonance. The original working title for this composition was Birds and Bells, since there are many bird-like and bell sounds; but Carillon Sky seemed a more abstract and poetic title upon reflection.
The idea was to try to compose a mini violin concerto, but one that is in fact a "whole piece" — all packed into less than 7 minutes. This is like a miniature etching.
The solo violin part is marked with this performance indication: "Passionate and rubato; like a jazz improvisation. Accentuate the variety of characters." Nine bars before the end of the work, there is an option for the soloist to compose and play a short (30 second) cadenza in the style and language of the composition. Trust for the skills and taste of the original soloist, Mr. Baird Dodge, inspired me to allow this option, which recalls the great, deep-rooted tradition of players making cadenzas in concerti.
Made up of several phrases, some of which end on fermatas, the works characters include: majestic, playful, elegant, resonant, spirited, calmly floating, bold, with repose, resolute and graceful. The form is slightly unusual in that the phrases are of asymmetrical length. As if a "group of improvisers" takes the materials a little further "out" or "back in" (in the jazz sense of those words) with each successive phrase. The piece accumulates — rather than being in one of the standard forms, such as ABA form, or rondo form. The form is the best reaction to the objects calling it into being.
Great care was given to the selection of pitches and to the creation of the harmonic fields in this work. I LOVE harmony; and think of my harmonies (simple or rich) as a moving target within a moving target.
It was my intention to bring out much color from the 14-member ensemble.
In the soloist's part, as well as in the ensemble, there are imbedded, in any phrase, other sub-phrases. A kind imbedded-counterpoint emerges with two or three simultaneous lines. For instance, some of the music is made up of long notes and some of short figurations (trills and arabesques) and it is the connection of the two that I find interesting. I like to "write out" the trills because I hear them to have more than 2 notes, to be sporadic in rhythm, and thus, not to be just a simple trill. A highly nuanced figure, with a particular shape and inner life is more interesting to my ears. I use many grace notes. Another example of the imbedded counterpoints comes from the fact that the violin has many different colors, especially from range to range. The lowest register is rich, dark and haunting, while the very top range is trumpet-like, brilliant and shimmering. Springing back and forth between different registers, and with contrasting dynamics, gives the sensation that more than one voice is in play and that somehow the truth of the piece is in the crossways between the various intersections.
While the music was very carefully made, and is highly nuanced, and is a "serious" piece of music, it should sound free, spontaneous, resonant, jazzy, playful and alive.
— Augusta Read Thomas