The Widening Gyre (2011)

large ensemble and electronics

View score excerpts [PDF].
(score available from American Composers Alliance)

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IU New Music Ensemble, dir. David Dzubay, with laptop ensemble part recreated during post production

In the northern Pacific Ocean, currents move in vast spirals that carry debris between far flung locations. A plastic bottle blown off of a landfill in Tokyo might turn up on the Alaskan coast. A disposable lighter swept into a storm sewer in San Diego might wash ashore on a Hawaiian beach. Miles off the coast of California, an immense sea of plastic slowly swirls, threatening wildlife and gradually entering the food chain as it breaks down into tiny fragments. The densest of these despoiled areas, dubbed “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” is the size of Texas and extends thirty feet below the ocean surface. Our practice of using permanent, non-biodegradable materials for temporary storage will have potentially far-reaching effects on biodiversity and the health of people who eat seafood.

The Widening Gyre metaphorically engages this environmental catastrophe. My intent is not to depict lurid scenes of accumulating trash in a literal way, but rather to transform the general process into an engine for music-making. At the same time, I hope to direct attention to the behaviors and policies responsible for the problem.

The ensemble comprises conventional acoustic instruments and, for the premiere performance, a sextet of laptop computers. The instruments are on stage, as usual. Two of the laptops are on stage, but others fan out from the stage at locations encircling the audience. The musical conceit is that motifs and gestures originating with the instrumental musicians are taken up by the laptop performers, through both imitation and recording of the instrumental sound. A central “conducting” computer manages the flow of data between the laptops over a wireless network. The locations of the laptops, each with its own self-contained speaker system, make it possible to swirl sound around the concert hall, calling to mind the currents of the North Pacific Gyre. The laptop players reinterpret the instrumentalists’ sound, breaking it down and decomposing it in ways that only computers can manage. The composition aims to draw an analogy between the treatment of sound by the computers and the corrosive action of sea water and sun on the man-made materials we discard every day.

This project would not have been possible without the talents and experience of the members of the New Music Ensemble, as well as the dedication of the laptop ensemble performing at the premiere (Sang Mi Ahn, Will Coogan, Kenji Kuriyama, Tim Miller, Aaron Stepp, and Michael Sweeney). I wish to thank Indiana University for supporting this work with a New Frontiers in the Arts and Humanities grant and a fellowship with the Institute for Digital Arts and Humanities.


  • Birds on a Wire ensemble, dir. David Colson, Western Michigan University School of Music, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 11/14/12
  • New Music Ensemble / IU Laptop Ensemble, dir. David Dzubay, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, 3/8/2011

Here is a screenshot of one of the Max patches used by the laptop ensemble. (Click to enlarge.)