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string quartet, saxophone quartet, E-flat clarinet (B-flat clarinet), 2 bass clarinets and delay

Commission: SMCQ, with support from the CCA

Premiere: October 7, 1982, Concert 138, Salle Pollack — Pavillon Strathcona — Université McGill, Montréal (Québec)

Treppenmusik (staircase music) is the German word used to describe Richard Wagner’s ‘Siegfried Idyll’ due to the unusual location of its first performance as a Christmas/birthday present in 1870 for his wife, Cosima. In my composition, however, this title alludes to the paradoxical staircases — ascents and descents to somewhere, to nowhere — and the other strange loop figurations found in the engravings and lithographs of the Dutch graphic artist, Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972).

Symmetries, canonic-like repetitions, metamorphoses, the familiar made fantastic — underlying techniques and principles articulated through his experiments with perspective and tesselation (mosaic patterns), all combine in Escher’s work which also came under the influence of mathematics. Indeed, he seems to have created in his compelling images another sentient world, one with its own impossible celestial mechanics.

As my dear friend, composer Claude Vivier (1948-1983) once wrote: «Time is a geometrically variable space. Different planes exist side-by-side, are intersected and transformed by the marvelous laws of celestial mechanics… Music has brought about the magic of time in human life. For a few brief moments, human beings transgress the divine order of celestial mechanics… Thus, humans construct their own machines for traveling through time: music.» (translation of an excerpt from “Pour Gödel”, in Trafics, Montreal, 1982)

Treppenmusik is my very own time-machine traveling through a world according to Escher.

John Rea

  • Score available at CMC, Région du Québec.
  • Recording: CD: Centredisques WRC8 6807