American Mavericks

Listening Room: Ruggles

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Program Notes: About Sun-Treader (PDF)

“In all works there should be the quality we call mysticism. All the great composers have it.”

Growling sonorities and angles that seem chiseled from rock sculpt the world of Ruggles’s Sun-Treader. Listen to the opening:

Ruggles: Sun Treader Opening by SF Symphony


Compare it to the opening of Brahms’s First Symphony. How would you compare the expressive quality of the two?

Brahms: Symphony No 1. (Opening) by SF Symphony


One of Ruggles’s signature techniques is the way he builds up huge vertical sonorities. Listen to this excerpt, which occurs about 5 minutes into the piece, and notice how the dissonances become more and more intense. Composer Henry Brant recalls Ruggles’s insisting: “They’re dissonances. They’re not sick octaves!”

Ruggles: Sun Treader at 5:30 by SF Symphony


The opening music, with its pounding timpani, comes back three more times. Here is the last time. Consider Ruggles’s statement that a work should have “the quality we call mysticism.” In your opinion, what aspects of this music contribute most to its “mystical” quality? Ruggles: Sun Treader at 2013-15 by SF Symphony