Element Cycle (2009) for orchestra
Dedicated to and premiered by the New York Youth Symphony
The Chinese elements are more than just earth, metal, water, wood, and fire. Together, they equal a system of classification and flow that serves as a framework for traditional Chinese arts and sciences. In the martial arts, the elements describe five fist motions. For example, metal represents a chopping motion like an ax while wood represents fast, darting movements forward, like arrows. In traditional Chinese medicine, the organs of the body and the relationships between them are organized by the elements. The heart warms the body and therefore is a fire organ, while the kidneys control water metabolism and therefore are water organs. In this manner, elements are used to describe the division of a whole into categories or stages and the flow of energy from one division to the next.
My piece, Element Cycle, has five continuous movements, each representing an element. Though the traditional form begins with wood, my composition begins with earth. Through beginning with barren earth, moving through the ever more vibrant elements of metal, water, and wood, and ending with death through destructive fire, I hope to capture the phoenix-like quality of the cycle.
Each movement focuses on a single quality inherent in the assigned element. Earth is the most stable and “grounded” of all of the elements, and so I use pulsing in the strings. In Metal, I use mainly metallic instruments, those being brass, metallic percussion, and flutes. The melodic lines in Water are fluid and quick, imitating a fast moving river. In the traditional element cycle, wood represents plant life, and its growth from a seed to full maturity. In my piece, Wood reflects on this through slow but constant growth and expansion. Finally, Fire contains orchestral hits that resemble explosions and fast-moving, frantic lines that resemble the crackling of burning wood.
Another link between my piece and the element cycle lies in pitch. Within tradition, each pitch of the pentatonic scale is assigned to one of the five elements. Do is earth, re is metal, mi is wood, sol is fire, and la is water. Note that do is the most stable, so it is only natural that it is assigned to earth, and sol is the least stable, and so it is given to the least stable element. In my piece, each movement is centered on the given element’s pitch. Do is C.