Dale Osterman’s piece Ouroboros depicts the serpent that devours its own tail:

“This piece is a dreamscape constructed of quotations, shifting textures, and dissociative changes in mood. From old material a new music arises and wars with itself. Performers are given the freedom to linger on sections for indeterminate periods of time, and this piece may last as long as they see fit. The title refers to the serpent that devours its own tail, an ancient symbol denoting the eternal cycle of creation and destruction, the interconnectedness of all things, and self-sustainment.”

Take a listen and view the score.

The piece consists of a series of noise structures, periods of minimalistic activity, and long, melodic dirges.  Take a look at the opening gesture:

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Here the cellos create a series of beating noises by using simultaneous open A strings and microtonally adjusted, fingered “A”s on their D strings.  Offsetting the crescendos and diminuendos by marking the repeated figure to be played freely, Osterman creates a shifting perspective, much like something becoming separated from itself.  As the ouroboros is both itself as it exists, and eating itself to sustain itself, this shifting introduces to us something that both is and is becoming; the present and the future.  This concept is marked with a gesture of gradually overpressing the bow to the strings, as if it were an exclamation point stating “yes–this is what the piece is about!”

At letter B we encounter our first melody–the first of a series of dirges.  These dirges typically center around a pentatonic scale with low pedals in the other instruments, giving them a solemn, Celtic, almost prayerful, feeling.  Here Osterman’s melodic writing shines.  Here are parts of all of the melodies (each image/line comes from a different section of the piece, in the order each section is presented).

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You may notice that Osterman has ingeniously reinforced his concept without explicitly stating it.  The order of the melodies goes Cello I, Cello II, Bass, and Cello I coming in at the end of the Bass melody.  This, of course, is a depiction of the ouroboros; starting, looping around to its end, and eating its end.  What marvelous merging of concept and content.

The last component I would like to highlight is a passage that comes “out of left field”.  Letter G introduces a series of minimalistic passages that grow in density before the recapitulation at letter K.  For example, take letters I and J:

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These freely repeated figures take advantage of mixed chromaticism, timbre changes, and textural chaos, to serve as a development that introduces us to the middle of the ouroboros.  By the time we reach letter K, we have gotten past the middle of the serpent and arrived at its end (and, we should say, its beginning):

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So, what can we learn from this piece?

  1. It is not always hard to merge concept and content.  Here Osterman excels at describing the subject, fusing concept and content in harmonic, textural, melodic, and formal ways.  And, even if the audience does not pick up on the sectional nature depicting the serpent, the piece makes sense conceptually.
  2. Strange instrumentations can really work.  Two cellos and a double bass is a strange set of instruments, that can get really muddy really quickly.  Here Osterman pushes each instrument into higher registers at specific times, to create a clearer texture, and takes advantage of the registral proximity to create chaos when desired.
  3. Melody is still alive and well.  The dirges here are breathtaking but not hackneyed.  You can still write melodies that are not cliche.

What are your thoughts?  Leave a comment here to join in!

Happy Composing,