for viola, cello and baryton (or double bass)
11 mins.

Commissioned by the Esterhazy Baryton Trio and first performed by them at the Kuhmo Festival, Finland in July 1980. UK premiere: Purcell Room, London, autumn 1980.

Programme note

Freewheeling is the only truly aleatoric piece I have written. It was commissioned by the Esterhazy Baryton Trio, who premiered it at the Kuhmo Festival, Finland on 25th July 1980, and gave the UK premiere at the Purcell Room, London a few months later.

Although the score is largely graphic and contains few notes, its form is strictly controlled. The basis is the harmonic series on the D-string which all three instruments possess, each in a different octave. Each instrument – cello, then baryton, then viola – plays a 7-bow phrase consisting of the repeated second harmonic of the series (3 x 7 = 21 bows); then each instrument plays 7-bow phrases of the second, third, fourth, fifth, fourth, third and second harmonics (3 x 7 x 7 = another 147 bows). This brings us to the central phrase of the piece, in which each instrument plays one bow of harmonic (171 bows so far). The dead centre (bow 172) is a pause, during which all three instruments play freely, each using harmonics from the series available on its D-string. The form then goes into reverse (another 171 bars). So the span of the piece is 343 (or 73) bows, made up as follows: (3 x 7), (3 x 49), (3 x 1), 1, (3 x 1), (3 x 49), (3 x 7).

The harmonic series is played by one instrument at a time; around it, the other two play freely, using seven-note modes which contrast with the harmonic background. These change from phrase to phrase, so the harmony shifts continually. The dynamic shape is indicated graphically, with a growth from low to high over the first 21 bows, a drop to low at bow 22, another growth to high over the next 147 bows, and a drop to the still centre at bow 343; this is then reversed in the second half.

This may sound mathematical, but it achieves my aim, which was to create a musical space within which the instruments could play freely. The harmonic series provides the space and the harmonic setting; the other material, freely invented by the performers, is then set against it. Because of the rarity of the baryton, a double bass – which, like the baryton, has a low open D-string – may be used instead.

Giles Swayne 2008