Bruce Quaglia on L'Acqua Alta (World Premiere)

Utah composer Bruce Quaglia has composed a new work for the NOVA Chamber Music Series to be premiered this Sunday. L'Aqcua Alta is a new chamber concerto for solo viola, solo piano, and an ensemble of winds and percussion. What follows are Bruce's notes on the new work as well as his remarks on two earlier pieces that will be performed on Sunday.


L'Acqua Alta is the name given to the periodic tidal surges of the Northern Adriatic that have, throughout history, caused Venice and other parts of the surrounding Veneto to become partially submerged for weeks at a time during the winters of some years. It is a fact of life in the region which stands in a direct relation to the quality of timelessness that has so often been remarked upon by visitors to La Serenissima. But my chamber concerto is not intended to be programmatic in the manner of, say, Debussy's piano prelude "The Sunken Cathedral," a piece about a mythic temple that emerges from the depths of the ocean every one hundred years. Instead, my title references only the impressions that I received while travelling for work during the period in which the piece was conceived and initially composed. It is therefore a manifestation of the creative diary that I always keep when travelling or composing.

I spent a month in Venice during the spring of 2012 (when there was no flooding), and then in the fall of that same year I visited post-Katrina New Orleans for the first time. In both cities I was struck by the profound beauty of the culture, of the people who lived there and the food, drink and music that made each place unique. And in each city I was also profoundly conscious of the high water, of the history of floods that marks life there. I fell deeply in love with both places during my relatively brief visits to them, and I have found that they now each occupy a place in the geography of my interior imaginative life. My dreams are often now set in relation to these places, and I often think about them in my waking life too. Only the red rock wilderness of Southern Utah has carved out a similarly deep impression within my internal creative imagination, and I have spent a much greater amount of my time in its canyons during the past twenty years by comparison.

So, while the piece is not really intended to evoke the specific locations of Venice or New Orleans, there are associated feelings and ideas from my travels that are present in the music. First, there is Time: the longer cycles of history and natural time and then the shorter increments of time with which we mark our individual lives. The former is dizzying to contemplate, the latter is fragile, it engages our emotions of love, fear and vulnerability, which then seem as nothing when compared to the larger cycles of time into which our lives disappear. The ensemble parts are mostly uncomplicated individually, but their relation to the ensemble is both fragile and delicate, the ensemble is a complex organism that develops various relationships to the soloists. In the third movement that organism evolves: it splits into two distinct units which then reorganize their relationships to one another and to the soloists.

The second idea is more technical, and so I will only explain it briefly and by analogy. The materials of L'Acqua Alta, specifically the pitch materials, conceptually engage the full range of possibilities that are present in chords and scales of different sizes, and most importantly, these are all thought of as cyclical, in accordance with the ideas about time and nature that I have described above. The most basic material of the piece is a 55 note chain that contains every possible six note chord type within it (there are 50 such hexachordal types in equal-tempered music). Naturally they overlap one another to fit into such a compact chain. The chains run in cycles that close larger loops and so they form a substrate out of which the details of the music then emerge. Everything is possible, but not everything is literally present as a musical detail. So it is with time and with nature.

L'Acqua Alta was commissioned by the Nova Chamber Music Series for soloists Jason Hardink (piano) and Brent Bayless (viola), each of whose artistry directly inspired the music that I composed. The piece is dedicated to my friend and mentor, the American composer Charles Wuorinen on the occasion of his 75th year.


Passaggio Scuro is a solo piano work that was commissioned by Jason Hardink of the Utah Symphony in 2005. The title of the work puns on that of another piece- Through the Dark Passage and the Canyon Below…, a chamber trio for which the composer received an Individual Artist’s Grant from the Utah Arts Council/NEA just a few weeks before the Hardink commission in the summer of 2005. The two pieces were thus conceived as “siblings” that share certain familial traits and generative materials. The family resemblance may or may not be immediately apparent to the listener. In each work I was concerned, although in different ways, with presenting a distinctive rhythmic character and a transparency of texture. These works, when taken together, form a snapshot of the midpoint of my twenty years in Utah as a composer. 

The shape of Passaggio Scuro was conceived as a recursive musical structure in which levels of the form mirror musical materials that are presented simultaneously at several levels of time and space. The listener need not be conscious of this compositional technique to enjoy the work however, because the resultant structure creates a sturdy container for the musical ideas of the piece to then be cast within. The intended effect is that of a compelling and dramatic shape presenting a sweeping expressive energy. Passaggio may have been planned with various formal processes to be enacted both openly and covertly, but it was mostly composed in response to the brilliant musicality of the pianist to whom it is dedicated: Jason Hardink.  It is offered as a point of expressive discourse between the composer and performer wherein the performer may subsequently bring the audience into that same dialogue.

By contrast, Through the Dark Passage and the Canyon Below… is a more sectional work that incorporates some of the raw materials that were used in Passaggio, but to different ends. During the summer months that I wrote the trio, I was listening almost exclusively to the music of composer Allen Anderson, a former teacher whose music I greatly admire. His music does not receive nearly as much attention as it deserves and I was planning to write an article that focused on the ways that his compositional techniques reflected earlier traditions of his own teachers, particularly Seymour Shifrin. Unfortunately, I never finished writing that article but I later realized that the trio itself was a pithy essay on those features of Anderson’s music that most engaged me as a listener, its clarity and certainty of expression.

- Bruce Quaglia

Nova Chamber Music Series
Nova Chamber Music Series


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