PENUMBRAE

Duration: 11 minutes
Instrumentation: clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and piano

Score

(Audio performed by Moscow Conservatory's Studio for New Music ensemble)

Liner notes from the Albany label CD (TROY1095):
     It is always a curious thing to speculate about the titles composers select for their compositions, and particularly in the case of pure music, that is to say music without text or other direct extra–musical affiliation. In such works, the degree to which title and composition either reflect one another or contain an essential bond is no doubt a matter of opinion, and yet it seems self-evident that on occasion the relationship is quite plain. Dahn᾿s Penumbrae represents a case in point. The singular form of the uncommon word is penumbra, which encompasses the related synonyms: "partial shade/shadow"; and "an obscuring" or "a shrouding," expressions that are quite apposite in accounting for Dahn’s composition.
     Scored for clarinet/bass clarinet (doubling), a string trio of violin, viola, and violoncello, plus piano, Penumbrae is dedicated to the Moscow Conservatory Studio for New Music. The piece is episodic in design, with a structure resembling a tree graph—the ocerarching curve of the whole is divisible into two units, each of which consists of two sections; in their turn, these four sections comprise various segments.
     The whole of the work is held together in creative ways, for while exact repetition of large swatches of music is not a central concern, the establishment of clearly identifiable affinities among its sections does assume a vital role. These affinities include numerous associations based upon manner of attack; at times, for instance, pithy rhythmic interplay dominates across the complete ensemble, while at other times the strings alone establish a pensive mood via the coordinated unfolding of upper register harmonics projected at a quiet dynamic level. Perhaps most captivating of all is the manner in which a single note, C–sharp/D–flat shoots through Penumbrae: C–sharp/D–flat is the leading pitch heard in the opening measures, with each of the five instruments slow to move away from it; further, the same note underpins critical segments in sections one, two, and four (and in the later case, a low register C–sharp/D–flat presented as a recurring triple forte tutti strike–point guides the way through the summation passage for the entire composition).
     The notion of "shrouding" comes to bear from the earliest moments, as when the clarinet adopts the principal line following the brief introductory flare. For here the furtive solo voice does not strictly speaking "emerge" from the context, rather it remains "distant"—to use Dahn’s performance indications—covered, as it were, by the combination of strings and piano whose collective role seems the more impactive. Additional compositional strategies are employed as a means of drawing focus on any number of aural events, as when attention continually turns from instrument to instrument in a veritable spatial sense via crisply performed short note values that rapidly transition from part to part.
     For all of its episodic qualities, however, the shift among sections in Penumbrae is easy enough to track, as when in section two the lower tessitura and the unique timbre of the bass clarinet stands in the place of the regular clarinet heard in section one. Further, additional string sounds (such as the "Bartók" pizzicato) enliven the setting, which intensifies up to the point of the pronounced fissure that separates unit one from unit two.
     The outset of section three is reminiscent of that which is heard in section one, but for a significant distinction: in section three Dahn tends to pit the violin, viola, and violoncello against the combination of piano and clarinet to a discernable degree, and even when all forces sound jointly, the play of partial shadow remains intact, one group obscuring the contributions of the other. In fact, countervailing forces of one degree or another obtain directly through to the final moments of section four, when the involvement of all participants is placed on a much more equal footing. Here the tutti projection of the pitch C#/Db establishes something of a détente that holds through the final measures of Penumbrae, where a decrescendo in the overall dynamic level leads this exceptionally subtle composition to an exceptionally subtle close.
          — Notes by Gregory Marion, The University of Saskatchewan


Penumbrae was written for the Moscow Conservatory Studio for New Music. The piece was performed in May 2008 in the Moscow Conservatory's Rachmaninoff Hall and was recording by the same ensemble, and is available on the Albany label CD (TROY1095).


Performances

—February 24, 2013: League of Composers Chamber Players, Tenri Cultural Center (New York, NY)
—February 4, 2010: SKIN Ensemble, SCI Region IV Conference, University of North Carolina-Greensboro (Greensboro)
—May 3, 2009: NODUS Ensemble, New Music Miami ISCM Concert Series, Miami Museum of Art (Miami)
—April 10, 2009: NEXTET Ensemble, N.E.O.N. Festival (Las Vegas)
—May 19, 2008: Moscow Conservatory Studio for New Music, Rachmaninoff Hall (Moscow)