for 4 cellos and Radio Baton-conducted electronic orchestra
Instrumentation: 4 cellos and Radio Baton-conducted sampler
"Terra Non Firma" was commissioned by the University of Victoria in honor of a visit by Max Mathews, inventor of the Radio Baton and the Conductor computer program, and commemorates the October 1989 Loma Prieta (San Francisco) Earthquake. The rock-solid accompaniment ordinarily provided by the tape part in a conventional piece for tape and instruments is replaced by the fluidity of the Radio Baton, as the conductor leads the cellists with his right hand while performing the Baton part with his left hand. Similarly, the instrumental parts consist entirely of sliding pitches, and the electronic orchestra is made up of shaky growls, buzzes, trills, bounces and wobbles. Everything is constantly in flux---tempo, timbre, material. The result is a sense of insecurity, like walking on unstable ground, forever shifting under your feet. The following anecdote explains something of the inspiration for the piece:
It so happens that I was scheduled to read string quartets with Max the day of the Quake. Afterwards, I drove straight to Max's house, ready to play, not realizing that without electrical power, we would have a hard time reading the music. We sat around the dinner table by candlelight listening on a battery-powered radio to reports of the fires and bridge disasters. I went over to the computer music laboratory at Stanford and discovered what was left of my office: the ceiling-high shelves had toppled and the original scores, parts and tapes were in a huge mound in the middle of the room, mixed with bits of plaster, broken glass and splinters of what was once a desk. Similarly, in Terra Non Firma, fragments of various musics. . .a polka, a waltz, a tango. . .are tossed around like bits of debris. These few points of reference are given and snatched away so unpredictably that they serve only to heighten a sense of transience and impermanence. It seems to me that life is something like that.
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Performance from the Stanford Centennial Celebration at Frost Amphitheater, Stanford University 1991