The governing metaphor for Groundswell is an imaginary journey through various topographies from sea level to Alpine terrain and back again. The viola functions as a guide, controlling the pace, highlighting points of interest, leading the group around tricky corners, stepping forward with acts of heroism, and standing aside to allow the group to experience their own personal awe.
There is an unavoidable symmetry in such an adventure. Even if you take a different route on the way down from the way up you pass through the same ecosystems in reverse order. This symmetry suggested the form of the piece. There are seven movements and the middle movement, Peak Experience, is singular and stands alone. The other six movements are all part of symmetrically placed pairs: 1. Approach by Sea – 7. Sailing Away; 2. The Fertile Sea – 6. Running Downhill; 3. Thin Air – 5. Over the Top. The degree of contrast becomes progressively greater as you descend so that, even though derived from the same material, movements one and seven, diverge quite a bit from one another while movements two and four are less divergent and movements three and five are very similar.
My first thoughts about Groundswell were while hiking in the mountains near Aspen in the summer of 2006. The steep uphill climb in the oxygen poor altitude informed Thin Air, the third movement – it’s full of expectation and a bit giddy. The stubborn beauty of the rocky landscape above the tree line suggested the austere, suspended fourth movement – Peak Experience. The adventure got me thinking about how the earth and our relationship to it changes at different altitudes.
My mind wanders easily to the mountains. I went to high school in South Lake Tahoe, California, and was a professional freestyle skier back in the days of hot-dogging. Much if not most of my music is influence by the rhythms of sliding down mountains but this is the first time I’ve consciously explored images from the earth that remains when the snow melts.
There were more meditations about earth and altitude later that same summer, while I was on my honeymoon in Italy. The first movement, Approach by Sea, is a short prelude that tries to capture the rush of bouncing along modest sea swells in our rented boat heading toward Monte Argentario, a rocky mountain that rises without warning out of the Mediterranean on the Tuscan coastline.
Driving around in our scooter (also rented) allowed us to appreciate the inland panoramas—repetitive patterns of cypress trees leading up to vineyards and olive groves nestled below medieval villages perched strategically on the hilltops. The second movement, The Fertile Hillside, is inspired equally by that landscape and the tuneful contours and dancing, undulating rhythms of spoken Italian.
Groundswell was written for my friend Hsin-Yun Huang whose sound is deep, warm and earthy and whose virtuosity and musicianship casts her comfortably into the role of guide.
— Steven Mackey