On January 24th, the SSO will bring the Northern Lights to the concert hall – John Estacio discusses his work Borealis.
The first time ever I experienced the glorious spectacle of the Aurora Borealis was a few short years ago when I arrived in Edmonton. Up until that moment I had to settle for textbook explanations and a geography teacher’s descriptions.
I had no idea what I was seeing when I first noticed the majestic curtains of swirling green light
in the sky one crisp October evening until a friend confirmed that it was indeed the Northern Lights. I was completely captivated and awestruck by the magical sight of dancing light; how could I not be inspired to compose a piece of music?! Having recently completed two serious compositions, it was the right time to revisit a style for unabashed lyrical melodies and joyous bright orchestral colours that Borealis would require.
The composition is written in two movements. The first movement is meant to be awe-invoking and attempts to capture the ethereal atmosphere of the lights of the northern skies; wide streams of bending, curving light that abruptly disappear and reappear. The ephemeral nature of these celestial happenings is represented by the sudden colourful outbursts followed by movements of near silence. The movement begins with the strings playing a major chord and then gradually glissing (bending the pitch) until they all arrive at a different chord; for me, this musical gesture captures the essence of bending curtains of light and serves as a recurring motive throughout this movement. A solo flute introduces fragments of a melody; this melody is not heard in its entirety until later in the piece when it is performed by a solo bassoon and then an English horn. The strings perform the melody and the composition swells to its climax featuring the brass and the sound splashes provided by the percussion. The movement concludes with a unique auditory effect in the percussion section that again attempts to convey the enchanting and magical quality of the borealis.
For the second movement, I wanted something that would be a formidable contrast to the subtle nature of the first movement, a celebrated dance of celestial light. The music for Scherzo (meaning “playful”) has more of a fervent and animated energy to it being inspired by the notion of dancing celestial lights (title changed to Wondrous Light, 2004). This movement is perhaps less of a literal musical representation of the borealis and is, instead, inspired by their energy and the speed at which the lights seem to zip through the evening skies. A nimble melody introduced by the oboe is developed intervallically and rhythmically throughout the composition. Sudden swells in volume accompanied by quick glissandos were inspired by the swirling curtains of green light which twist and turn and vanish suddenly in the night sky. Towards the conclusion of this movement the nimble theme is transformed into a noble melody performed as a traditional chorale by the trombones, and then repeated by the full orchestra. The conclusion of this piece attempts to capture the majesty of the borealis — they have graced our northern skies since time began and will continue to dance evermore.