Realm Variations, commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, is an example of Monk’s focus in recent years on creating compositions in which "voices are like instruments and instruments are like voices". The title reflects the composer’s engagement with the idea of musical "realms," which in this case refers to the distinct pitch regions over which the performing forces are deployed. Monk explains:
"As part of this commission, I was invited to compose a work that would spotlight Catherine Payne, the San Francisco Symphony’s piccolo player. I realized that, as a singer, I didn’t know much about that high treble area, so that was something to explore. Every piece I make is a learning experience. I created a high realm in which the piccolo is joined by the violin and two soprano singers. To balance the piccolo, I chose to use contrabass clarinet at the bottom of the texture, along with bassoon and two low-voiced singers. And then in the middle realm are viola, French horn, and two alto singers, singing mostly in their middle range. The three realms start out distinct, but as the piece progresses they crisscross in webs of activity. Completing the instrumentation is a harp, which crosses all the boundaries; you might say it pulls those realms into one web and covers the whole sonic spectrum."
"I have never made a piece quite like this, divided into areas of sound, although in the past few years I have been working on the relationship of voices to instruments and vice versa. I’m exploring how a singer and instrument can work together to make a third sound that isn’t like either of them individually. Sometimes I treat the parts in a contrapuntal way and sometimes I layer them."
"Catherine Payne is unusual among piccolo players in her capacity for melodic playing. She really can sing with that instrument. In this piece I have preferred to get away from the usual ‘sparkling’ piccolo writing, though I do make use of her flexibility. I also love how the instrument suggests a spatial quality, how it can extend into a performing space."
Realm Variations derives to some degree from ideas of Buddhism, which Monk has practiced for many years. "In the Buddhist tradition," she says, "there are different realm categories—one is the idea of joining heaven and earth by way of the human realm. I certainly don’t intend to illustrate that idea through this piece, but sometimes these principles are inspiring for me. Still, as the piece developed, I had a sense that the realms did suggest aspects or processes of nature."
The work is cast as a multi-sectional single movement. The variations are not classical in the sense that a single theme is viewed from various perspectives; these variations unfurl kaleidoscopically, as the realms interpenetrate.
This program note may be reproduced free of charge in concert programs with a credit to the composer.
“The real splendor of the piece is the way Monk takes her familiar musical materials—tender fragments of melody, gentle modal harmonies and woven textures of trance-like radiance—and reconceives them in an original guise. Realm Variations offers the spectacle of a great creative artist opening up a whole new world of expressive resources.”
— Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle
“Realm Variations is [Monk’s] most cogent, confident effort to date.”
— Alex Ross, New Yorker