Sea Surface Full of Clouds

Sea Surface Full of Clouds takes its title from a poem of the same name by Wallace Stevens. The poem, written after a 1923 voyage from New York through the Panama Canal to California, is a set of variations in which each of its five sections describes a sea scene off the western coast of Mexico. Each section is similar to the others in the way it unfolds, but Stevens creates a different atmosphere in each through subtle variation in the adjectives and images he uses to suggest the water, wind, clouds, sky and quality of light.

Like the poem, the piece is set in five movements and evokes the changing sea using a small set of musical materials and gestures that are continually reshaped. The primary materials of the piece are the intervals of a minor second and minor third and a swelling, wave-like gesture. The intervals are combined, layered and stretched to create a limited but varied range of scales and harmonies, while the swelling gesture is reflected in the dynamics of individual notes, the contour of phrases and even the shape of entire movements.

The bright and energetic opening of the piece introduces much of the material heard throughout the work, then thins out to a high, spare texture at the movement’s close. The second movement traces a large arc: low, thick string chords are joined by the winds as they move upwards, before descending again to a calm but dark texture at the end. The third movement begins without pause and features a texture marked by aggressive brass chords, trilling winds and tremolo strings, which increase in intensity before giving way to gently arching lines in the winds. A canon in the brass emerges from the wind melodies and builds to a climax. A brief scherzo follows in the fourth movement, with a very fast tempo, a thinner texture and lighter character. The fifth movement is by far the longest and traces two large swells, the second of which ends the work with a climax inspired by the poem’s close:

…then the sea
And heaven rolled as one and from the two
Came fresh transfigurings of freshest blue.

Sea Surface Full of Clouds was commissioned by the Richmond Symphony.

© 2014 Benjamin Broening