Strange loops, for violin and cello (2018)

Duration: 21:00

Instrumentation: violin and cello

Premiere: January 31, 2019 at Mercantile Library in Cincinnati, OH by concert:nova (Stefani Matsuo, violin and Hiro Matsuo, cello)


Strange Loops takes its title from the concept developed by Douglas Hofstadter in his books Gödel, Escher, Bach and I Am a Strange Loop. Strange loops arise when one moves through a system in one direction, yet somehow ends up back at the beginning. While there are lots of examples in visual art (Escher’s Waterfall and Drawing Hands) and in verbal paradoxes (“This statement is false”), I became particularly interested in the ways we can experience strange loops in music.

The first movement is a free fantasy loosely modeled on the shape of a mobius strip (often depicted as a strip of paper with a half-twist, reconnected to form a closed circle). In the middle of my fantasia, there is a kind of tonal half-twist that reconnects the music back to the beginning. (There are many other examples of the music turning backward and upside-down throughout the first movement, reflecting the effect of trying to trace the surface on a Mobius strip.) The second movement is a quick scherzo based on the idea of recursion, or mise-en-abyme. This is most commonly associated with visual art that depicts a picture within a picture. I portray this musically with an 11-note sequence: this sequence is heard rapidly at the beginning (forward, backward, and upside-down), there are 11 sections of the piece (one for each note of the sequence), and the piece contains many smaller and larger versions of the sequence embedded throughout each section. The third movement, a pastorale, focuses on an auditory illusion, called a Shepard Tone, which gives the impression of an endlessly rising line – a sort of musical barber-shop pole. Throughout, the violin and cello play a lyrical line in octaves, gradually rising and rising, without ever falling back down. The final movement is a set of variations structured after a Japanese folk tale, The Stonecutter. In the story, a poor stonecutter is dissatisfied with his life and believes he would be happier as a rich man. He is granted his wish by a spirit, but is immediately dissatisfied and wishes to be a prince. The spirit continues to grant each wish as the story continues. As a prince, he notices the powerful sun and wishes to take its place in the sky, but as the sun, he realizes that a cloud can obscure his light and heat. As a cloud, he realizes that a mountain can block him and is impervious to wind and rain. Finally, as a mountain, he believes he is all-powerful, until hearing a stonecutter chipping away at his feet. The stonecutter, returned to his original form, learns a valuable lesson from this very strange loop.