Charles Shere: Nightmusic
solo violin, English horn, and tuba, with orchestra
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score: currently unavailable. recording: see below
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Nightmusic remains a favorite failure, or a problematic success: an attempt to write for a large orchestra music which remains freely and loosely organized. The sound of the piece came first, and it came while riding the ferry from the Battery to Staten Island, on a cool grey February day in 1964; but the notation of the piece had to wait until I had seen (and "conducted") John Cage's Concert for Piano, at the (San Francisco) Third Annual Festival of the Avant-Garde in 1965.

Nightmusic is scored for an orchestra lacking violins, double-reeds, and middle brass, but making up for these with a number of jangly pitched percussion instruments, including guitar, harp, piano, celesta, gongs and cymbals. There are also three concertante instruments: solo violin, English horn, and bass tuba. There are about thirty sections, each between twenty seconds and a minute and a half in length, each leading to the next. They are conducted clock-style, instruments entering and exiting at approximate times, though sometimes on cue. The piece is about a half hour long, quiet and purposeless.

There are two immediate musical influences besides Cage. One is Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose "moment form," perfected in Momente for soprano, chorus, and orchestra, has something to do with the concept of Nightmusic. (I heard Momente in its American premiere in Buffalo, New York, in Febrary 1964, just a week or so before that Staten Island Ferry trip.)

The other is Morton Feldman, whose early Durations for violin, tuba, and piano was a memorable part of the Third Annual. Uncoordinated but otherwise closely integrated chamber music is more easily written for and performed by small ensembles, though, and it took quite a while to figure out how to write Nightmusic.  It took even longer to get a performance: Kent Nagano prepared the premiere over the fall and winter of 1981, performing it with the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra on Jan. 24, 1982. In his usual thorough way Kent analyzed the structure of the piece, then broke its orchestration into a number of separate ensembles, rehearsing each thoroughly.

Following the live performance of the piece, in Oakland's Paramount Theatre, a recording was assembled from many tracks recorded at final rehearsals and special recording sessions. This was released as an LP on Thomas Buckner's 1750 Arch label, and copies are still available: e-mail your inquiry.

Two anecdotes: I gave the score to Niklaus Wyss, then assistant conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, who tried to persuade Seiji Ozawa to schedule it. They played through the score at the piano, and after a while, according to Niklaus, Seiji said "Look at this, we've been playing through this for ten minutes now and nothing has happened, I can't ask my audience to sit through this!"

On the other hand, one of the nicest things I've heard about any of my music was told me by a friend of Claude Duval, the founder of the (San Francisco) Noh Society, who commissioned my two little Stein operas. I was told that he listened to the recording of Nightmusic many times as he lay dying, always taking pleasure in the music's tranquility.

The opening measures, as re-notated with barlines in 1996:

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rev. 9/15/00