Sean Hickey in music warehouse

A Pacifying Weapon

A Pacifying Weapon album cover
Text Full

A Pacifying Weapon, commissioned by its soloist and dedicatee, Michala Petri, and with generous support from the Edition Borup-Jørgensen, was composed throughout nearly the entirety of 2015. It is a concerto in three distinct movements, scored for various solo recorders and an orchestra of winds, brass, percussion and harp.  

Over the past decade I have been blessed by several commissions – including three concertos – which have allowed me to explore the form and wrestle with the concerto tradition and its complications.  

During its planning and composition, the world changed – inevitably – again and again, as it never stops doing. Terrorist acts in San Bernadino, Paris and Brussels, the particularly acute American ignorance of wars in distant parts of the world, the endless spectacle of a primary election, enormous waves of migrants crossing Europe to flee conflict, in search of freedom for their confused and scared children.  

Though I wasn’t looking for one, a quasi-program began to form. The idea of its title came to me one evening when my wife played the first Indigo Girls album, an indie folk classic, and its song Welcome Me. Two words among its lyrics gave me my title and completed my idea that has since become a bit of an obsession.  

What if there were a tool or instrument that, instead of delivering a sudden death, was capable of providing an instant and irreversible peace? Something concealed or open, equipped to eradicate the effects and misery of war? A coat of paint to mask or erase pain, a conquering hero of misery. In some ways, the recorder – an ancient instrument passed down unchanged through the years - presented itself to me, as witness to the rise and fall of empires, crusades, wars, and countless births and deaths, as a musical voyeur.  

The extended first movement begins with pitched percussion and a quick, rising climax in the orchestra from bottom to top, before the solo recorder enters with a naïve theme that is to assert itself throughout the movement.

The second movement opens with a peal of the orchestral bells and a short bass clarinet flourish, leading to quiet and ominous tremolando in the winds. A 9/8 section, with a cryptic “forlornly” marking, leads a dialogue between recorder and percussion, before returning to the forlorn music but which then pushes toward a tense climax. A duet between recorder and cor anglais ensues. The movement closes with a slow and rising chorale in the winds, in a comforting and hopeful C major.

The third movement begins with percussive rumbles and continues to some ominous music from the brass. When composing I often use some existing rhythmic motive – and usually from popular music. During this piece my son began his obsession with electronica and dubstep, styles to which I claimed ignorance. Porter Robinson’s Sad Machine made its way into the main theme of the movement, first introduced by the recorder, and more or less turned inside out so as to be unrecognizable. An extended nearly improvised mid-section for bass recorder and metallic percussion – often with echoes of the opening music of the movement – continues to surer rhythmic footing, a switch to alto recorder, and the introduction of a rhythm by the bodhran, the Irish frame drum. 

Harmonic complexities are peeled away and the recorder introduces a simple tune: the traditional Scottish Highland reel known as Druimuachdar, or the Highland Road to Inverness. I introduced this pipe tune while staying in the far northwest corner of Washington State, on the hilly shores of the Puget Sound. Heraldic brass erase the melody but it reasserts itself in a broad crescendo to a solid G Major chord, leaving the recorder and a solitary second soloist: a snare drum. Fife and drum, in the vanguard of European and American troop regiments throughout history - and meant to inspire fear and stir emotions from miles distant - end the work with a loud-as-possible snare crack having the final word. A martial signal perhaps, raging against the senselessness of war, the seeming futility of music in the face of tragedy, a weapon to silence the madness of violence.  

I would like to give special thanks to percussionist extraordinaire and director of studies at Royal Academy of Music, Gert Mortensen, for all of his help with a large percussion battery. Spending a leisurely afternoon sampling what must surely be the largest assemblage of percussion was inspiring and overwhelming. Thanks also to Elisabet Selin, who helped make the piece possible and for her support of composers and the work of her father, Axel Borup-Jørgensen; Lars Hannibal for first proposing the idea, and providing loads of guidance; and of course to Michala Petri, for showing me around an instrument made wondrously versatile in her capable hands. Last but not least a thank you to all the young musicians of the Royal Danish Conservatory of Music for their great work during the recording sessions - a situation still unfamiliar to many of them.

Sean Hickey Brooklyn, NY – April 2016