Christian Mason (*1984) An Ocean of Years
[orch] 2020-2022 Duration: 21'
2(2picc).2(cor ang).2(B-clar).2(dble bsn) – 184.108.40.206 – timp.perc(2) – hp – cel – str
World premiere: Berlin, Konzerthaus, October 14, 2022
Commissioned by the Konzerthaus Berlin
An Ocean of Years (2020 - 2022) is the third and final part of my orchestral cycle Time and Eternity, the first and second parts being Eternal Return (2018), and Eternity in an Hour (2019) respectively. The (extra-musical) theme shared by all these pieces can be considered through the following questions, though I do not expect absolute answers:
• (How) can listening to music transform our relationship to, and experience of, the passage of time?
• (How) can listening enable us to experience “non-time” states?
• (How) can “time” and “non-time” states coexist and connect within a single listener or piece?
It seems to me that, like rivers or oceans, pieces of music have currents of time which flow through them at different rates. But sometimes, ever-so rarely, we get an inner glimpse of something else beyond these ...
Thinking about eternity, one thing we can be certain of is that it is not a quantity of time — however long; nor is it a rate of time — however fast or slow. Is it, then, something “before” or “after” time? Or is it a completely different condition, a different layer of being, “behind” time?
A more mundane interest, common to these compositions, is the re-use of materials from other pieces of mine. A personal search, through my own brief span of time, for connections and affinities. In this respect, An Ocean of Years certainly has the widest and, the most interesting range of source materials. The recurrent eight-note “spectral fragment” which frames the first movement, for example, connects back to an old solo violin piece When Joy Became Mixed with Grief (2007), as well as more recently to Shadowy Fish (2020), where it appeared as a musical metaphor for flowing water, always repeating yet never the same river twice. In the second movement we find not just a fragment of material but an entire piece — Heaven’s Chimes are Slow (2011), a meditation on time through Christina Rossetti’s poem of the same name — rendered in new clothing. While the third movement begins with a resonant chord sequence from the final movement of my string quartet This present moment used to be the unimaginable future... (2019), this recycled chord sequence leads to a new and intricately decorated melody that gradually becomes engulfed in a final wave of orchestral colour.
The title here, as with the old violin piece, is taken from the final line of a Jainist account of declining beauty (India, 6th century BC), which I came across in The Clock of the Long Now. Though the language is mythical, the ideas are resonant with contemporary environmental and aesthetic concerns:
“This age, known as Very Beautiful, Very Beautiful, lasted 400 trillion oceans of years*, and gave way to that known as Very Beautiful, which - as the name suggests - was exactly half as fortunate as the former. The wish-fulfilling trees, the earth and the waters were only half as bountiful as before. Men and women were only four miles tall, had only 128 ribs, lived for only two periods of countless years, and passed to the world of the gods when their twins were only 64 days old. This period lasted 300 trillion oceans of years, declining gradually but inevitably to the stage called Sorrowfully Very Beautiful, when joy became mixed with grief.”
Like so many projects, the completion and premiere of this piece, planned for June 2020, was delayed by the corona pandemic. Originally I had intended to offer the piece as an 80th birthday tribute to Christoph Eschenbach, a dedication which still stands two years on.
(Christian Mason, July 2022)
[*An “ocean of years” is one hundred million times one hundred million palyas. Each palya is a period of countless years.]