for string quartet (2002)
with computer sound
duration is 8′

The words Somata and Asomata refer to corporeal and incorporeal existence. The piece uses a real (embodied) string quatet in counterpoint with a computer-generated virtual (disembodied one) played back out of loudspeakers. The computer quartet is a phantasm, an impossible collection of instruments that are based in physics of bowed strings but altered beyond the possibility of real physics. The material of these mathematical strings can change in real time; they can be made out of glass or stone, and they are constructed at impossible lengths. In addition they can be bowed and plucked with forces and materials that would damage a real instrument. These virtual strings were never real materials but only exist in the realm of mathematics and computer modeling.

The virtual string quartet tracks the energy of the real quartet, as if it is a reflection of reality in a smoky and distorted mirror or in the ripples of a pool of water.

The concept “Somata/Asomata” comes from an ancient Gnostic philosophical text called the Corpus Hermeticum. In this text, a character named Tat tells a king that just as incorporeal images of bodies (such as a mirror’s reflection) present reality, so do ideas reflect real embodied existence. Tat describes how ideas, as expressions of the intelligible world, are reflected in physical bodies. And conversely he says, bodies can reflect ideas. Philosophers such as Asclepius and Plutarch supported this concept, and it was popular in the public imagination of ancient Greek and Roman society. People of this period believed that statues contained the life force of the things they depicted.

Musically, Sonata/Asomata borrows techniques and aesthetics from Beethoven and Debussy, particularly in the manner in which these composers shape energy. In my work, I am inspired by the textural effect of Debussy’s nature-inspired composition and we hear similar use of tremolo, arpeggio and dynamics in crests and pulses in this music. Like Beethoven, small musical entities are expanded and varied across time in Somata/Asomata.

After listening to Somata/Asomata one listener wrote that she felt as if she were “riding on the crest of a breaking wave”. This sense of continually cresting energy and imminent chaos is a feeling I strive for in the music. The piece seeks this complexity but does it in collaboration with the performer who is given a considerable degree of interpretive freedom even as the music is tightly composed.

Somata/Asomata was commissioned by Musik I Nordland for the MiN Quartet who gave the premiere at the ILIOS Festival in Norway.

score excerpt


Somata/Asomata score and elec
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