The Night Garden

Wind Ensemble/8' 30/Difficulty - Hard/2017

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Senzoku Wind Symphony at the Senzoku Gakuen College of Music
conducted by Jerry Junkin.

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“The earth has its music for those who will listen...”
– attributed to George Santayana

As the old, famous philosophical thought experiment muses: if a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? The gist of the question, somewhat clichéd in its frequent application, is to ponder whether direct observation is the catalyst for the existence of any phenomenon. John Mackey’s The Night Garden toys with the fringes of this experiment by depicting—in a loosely programmatic way—the goings-on of nature in the late evening, undisturbed by human intervention. As the composer notes, the imagery of the title provided uncommon inspiration for the direction of the piece:

My spouse titles almost all of my pieces, and she consistently comes up with better things than I ever could. Usually, she gives me the title after the piece is nearly done, picking something that reflects what the music sounds like. This time, we did it backwards: she came up with the title and I wrote the music based on that, so I spent the whole write process trying to imagine, well, a garden at night. All of the little effects sound like pieces of nature to me, like the shine of fireflies in keyboard percussion, or a dragonfly flitting by in a flute part, or the croaking of a bullfrog called out by a guiro.

I was also moved by the world around us right now. It seems like everyone is hurting somewhere, and I just needed to write something beautiful. Other artists will surely need to respond differently to these times with their creative voices, but for me, right now, I wanted to create something calm and beautiful.

The Night Garden was commissioned by the Senzoku Wind Symphony at the Senzoku Gakuen College of Music in Japan (Masato Ikegami, director), and the tremendous virtuosity and tradition of that ensemble is made immediately apparent in the workings of the piece, which demonstrates remarkable technical dexterity, a substantive architecture, and refined contours that make the piece exceptionally challenging. The piece is a stylistic departure in many ways for Mackey, with innovations in his compositional voice that are striking and mesmerizing. The work, as a whole, is highly textural, with very little in the way of traditional melodies, instead favoring fragmented flourishes of technique and flaring dynamics that give dramatic color shifts in short bursts. In this way, The Night Garden seems less like a typical 21st-century musical composition and more an Impressionist painting, with a vibrant landscape portrayed in visible brushstrokes.

The composition unfolds in a long arch, with a symmetrical form that brings earlier elements back in reverse order. It opens with a quick, lilting 6/8 introduction that evokes a classic sensation of pastoral themes set atop a shimmering background. After a brief flirtation with a tune in clarinet that evaporates just as quickly as it appears, this bouncy introduction resolves and gives way to a moto perpetuo in the piano – a crystalline skittering of sixteenth notes that floats unassumingly underneath capricious scalar interjections from woodwinds. These layer atop each other, with progressive frequency, building up the texture and excitement, assisted by slowly shifting, but increasingly crunchy harmonies reminiscent of late minimalist composers such as John Adams. A release of tension, and a change to the piano ostinato, introduces the reflective central section of the work where a mist-like web of harmonies gives way to a melody in bassoon. This, the first and only fully-developed melody in the piece, is taken up by trumpet and eventually the whole of the ensemble, before receding back into the constant of the piano. A repetition of the first moto perpetuo follows fairly true to its original, but this time becoming even more emphatic at its climactic moments, pressing into the tension and release of sliding fifths in a cathartic release. The mist returns at the coda, with a gentle oscillation of flutes joining the piano to reminisce on the introductory motivic fragments, before dissipating into a sparkle in the final moments. Like a garden illuminated by moonlight, its magical beauty has become tranquil once more.

program note by Jake Wallace

Please credit Jake Wallace when reproducing in full or excerpt