for flute, harp, violin, viola, cello.
13 mins.

Commissioned by the ensemble Jeux, and first performed by them at the Purcell Room, London on 20th February 1987.

Programme note

Tonos is scored for flute, harp, violin, viola and cello, and lasts fifteen minutes. It was commissioned by the ensemble Jeux and first performed by them at the Purcell Room, London, on February 20th 1987.

“Tonos” is the ancient Greek word for mode. Ancient Greek music was based on a system of modes, each with its own function and character – rather like the ragas of Indian classical music.

Tonos uses a set of eight-note modes – each mode being associated with a particular combination of instruments. All the possible permutations of the five instruments are used in the piece: five solos, five quartets, ten duos, ten trios, and one tutti. The tutti is used five times; so thirty-five modes are used in all. Each combination of instruments also has a particular tempo, which relates to the number of instruments in play. Solos are slowest, the quintet is quickest; so there are five tempi altogether. Because of the way the modes are used, there are fewer notes when larger forces are used; so the five tutti passages are brief snatches in relation to the rest of the music.

Embedded in the piece is the story of Œdipus, the innocent yet doomed king of Thebes. The final bars use speech-rhythms from the last scene of Sophocles’ tragedy, where the blinded Œdipus gropes his way into the distance, banished for ever from his home and family. The cello taps out the rhythm of the phrase in ancient Greek with which Œdipus describes himself: “most wretched of mortals”.

Giles Swayne 2008