The subject of Seven Signals is the power of non-verbal communication in a time in which verbal communication seemingly leads us to constant misunderstandings. These “signals without language” range from physical impulses through to encoding systems taken from maritime practice. The work is dedicated to the choreographer Jirí Kylián with whom Brett Dean collaborated for the 1998 ballet One of a Kind.
The first movement, “Impulse Study,” grows out of a signal-generating pizzicato on the strings of the piano. Contrasting with the resulting nervous, rapid runs in the clarinet are the stringent pizzicatos of the violin and cello. A multiphonic chord in the clarinet leads into a section of various tonal repetitions, developing into a rhythmically marked, “hammering” section, which will be of significance again in a later movement.
“Flowing, floating, and delicately luminous,” the beacon in the second movement sends out its signals with harmonics and short figures. Fog seems to arise quietly from the bass register of the piano before the beacon flickers again.
The idea of extracting material from a constant rhythmical figure returns in the third movement, which bears the title “Morse 1.” Here, with fragile, repeated harmonics, the violin announces a rhythm that radio operators could probably decipher: the distress calls, in Morse code, of the sinking RMS Titanic which collided with an iceberg during the night of 14th-15th April, 1912. Adapted from the ship’s original radio messages, Dean develops a dense rhythmical pattern that the three other instruments add to with increasing intensity. The desperate signals “CQD” (“sécurité, distress,” the first maritime distress call in history) and “SOS,” which the Titanic’s radio operator Jack Philipps sent out constantly till the end, can be heard as the movement reaches its climax. Philipps did not survive the demise of the Titanic.
The fourth movement, “Body Language (Pas de deux),” appears as a delicate, floating study inspired by dance - arguably the most sensual among non-verbal manners of communication. The wave-like sixteenth-note figuration in the piano is inspired by Robert Schumann’s Märchenerzählungen.
The angular fifth movement, with multiphonics, quarter-tones, and noise-like whipping sounds made with the bows, is titled “Semaphore” (a telegraphy system for optical transmission of messages by means of flags). Short, flickering motifs ultimately lead into long sustained chords in which signals continue to resonate intermittently.
Movement 6, “Tallying,” is inspired by the way in which prisoners mark up their days spent in confinement by means of lines etched upon the wall. Four even, stubbornly repeated quarter notes stand for the vertical lines, the horizontal line is dissipated in rambling ornaments, as if already setting out into freedom.
“Morse 2,” the seventh movement, again takes up the Titanic’s distress signal, now embedded in overtone-rich and quarter-tone textures. With delicate, angled swishes of the bows across the strings, the violin and cello perform a ghostly version of the hymn “Nearer my God to thee” - allegedly the last music that the ship’s orchestra played on board the sinking Titanic. The SOS signals break off suddenly.
In spite of using the same instrumentation - and the passing reference to the theme of imprisonment in the sixth movement - Dean’s Seven Signals don’t consciously aim to recall the much-admired Quator pour la fin du temps by Olivier Messiaen, says Brett Dean. For him, the clarinet brings its very particular energy and colour to the standard piano trio; the movements are interconnected by their own motivic interrelationships. The work was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, who honored Brett Dean with the Stoeger Prize in 2011. The premiere is to take place under its auspices on 5th April, 2019 in New York.
Programme note © Kerstin Schüssler-Bach / Boosey & Hawkes (2019)
“minimalist magic … Dean recreates a sound world in which distress signals at sea, SOS Morse code and scratched texts on prison cell walls transition into a musical modus.” —Violinist.com