Corfu is a single-movement work “with three divisions,” as the composer
noted, again commissioned by Betty Freeman, this time for the Kronos Quartet.
The request came immediately after the premiere of Solstice, but Erickson was
unable to begin the score until the following February. As had long been his
method, Erickson composed the piece straight through from beginning to end,
without worksheets or sketches, dating the pages now and then: 2/9/86, 2/10,
3/6, 4/14, 4/25.
He completed it in June, adding a short program note to its score: “The style
is bare and ‘stripped down,’ though it is strongly melodic. I have tried to compose
a piece that is directly expressive and that goes its own expressive ways. During
the composition of the piece I found myself thinking almost every day of the
Greek islands and their ancient civilizations. Hence the title, though I have never
been to Corfu.”
The three “divisions,” nearly equal in length, seem at first glance to consist of
a quicker movement between two slower ones—it’s always been the convention to
describe long structural divisions in terms of their tempo. But the sounds in Corfu
are often so slowly paced as to remove tempo, movement itself, from the sonic
picture. The piece begins quite loud on unison Cs, quickly growing quiet, and then
a slow, long, contemplative melody is heard in the viola, then the cello, over a
drone in the upper strings which provides a sort of reference point, a sonic horizon.
While writing Sound Structure in Music Erickson had taught a course on
Mahler at the University, and the opening viola melody suggests that the finale of
the Austrian composer’s Das Lied von der Erde had made a lasting impression.
To Mahler, the program had been clear: a narrator, the composer, was contemplating
death, singing his farewell. Erickson was by now composing in his wheelchair,
drawn up to the kitchen table, slowly drawing the map his four instruments
negotiate across their eighteen pages.
After the first five pages, after more than eight minutes of this spacious, open
acoustic, the quality changes. The suddenly loud gesture of the first moment
returns, and quickly repeated sixteenth-notes insist on the pitches that until now
had been quiet drones. A greater variety of tone-production emerges: plucked
strings; high whistling harmonics.
This contrasting section leads to a long, slow, unaccompanied solo for the
cello, exploring its full range, especially the highest octave. It closes, though, on
its lowest note, the open low C; and then, after another two measures of rest, the
first violin picks up the pitch, gradually leaving it, always tracing pitches emerging
naturally from its overtones, and it becomes clear we have entered a third major
part of the piece. The song is slow and quiet, as in the opening minutes of the
score, but both more supple and more acoustically grounded on its eternal C.
Suddenly, a minute or two before the end, a discord momentarily darkens the
sky, but the shadow passes almost immediately as the five-note melody returns,
passing calmly among the four instruments, and the music ends, quietly, in a
final minute which has moved, as if looking across a divide toward a new vision,
from C to F.
Corfu is similar to Solstice—in fact the two works could be considered two
movements of a single String Quartet. It is both less urgent, though, and less
inner-directed, innig as the Germans say: where Solstice is apparently a wintry
piece, Corfu reaches into summer. It provides a fitting close to this survey, leaving
any thought of a composer’s ego aside in their contemplation of pure sound.
– Charles Shere
Charles Shere is a California writer and composer. He studied composition with Robert Erickson,
and wrote the biography Thinking Sound Music: The Life and Work of Robert Erickson.