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
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).
—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)