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Motion (2010)

for Britten Sinfonia
Clarinet, String Quartet, and Piano, Seven Minutes

Orlando Gibbons’s verse anthem See, see the Word is incarnate is one of my favorite pieces of text setting: Gibbons divides up Godfrey Goodman’s verses into solo bits for solo or coupled countertenors, who weave in and out of a texture of viols. Then, the chorus comes in at the end of each verse, like a 1960s girl group, echoing the soloist: “let us welcome such a guest!” “good will towards men!”

Knowing when to come in was always an adventure for me as a chorister; I memorized everything and then would get entranced by the soloists (how can you not get drawn into a line like “See, O see the fresh wounds, the gored blood, the prick of thorns, the print of nails”?) and miss my entrance. This piece, Motion, tries to capture the nervous energy of obsessive counting. The piece is built on little repeated fragments from the Gibbons, as well as an extended quotation and ornamentation of one of the verses, where the viola and the cello criss-cross one another and the other instruments create a messy grid of anxious quavers. The piece ends ecstatically, using as its primary cell Gibbons’s melody “in the sight of multitudes a glorious ascension.”

The title comes from a vision of Christ’s reign: “the blind have sight and cripples have their motion” – the word “motion,” in Gibbons’s setting (and my appropriation), comprising three syllables.

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