Music Monday: Cuong: Moth

Counting today’s piece as well as my musical, I now know five pieces about moths written by composers I either am, know closely, or have met at least once. I don’t really know what to do with this information. I don’t think there’s any deeper significance to it, but it seems our little fluttery friends do much to inspire music these days. It’s not quite possible yet, but I am absolutely delighted by the prospect of one day being able to do several months’ worth of posts that exclusively feature moth music.

Unsurprisingly, my first exposure to Viet Cuong had nothing to do with nocturnal lepidopterans. Instead, it was in the fall of 2010 when the Yale Concert Band played his Ziggurat, complete with a custom animation projected behind us that, for some reason, involved flying bicycles. At the time, Cuong was finishing up a Master’s of Music degree at the Peabody Conservatory (where he also did his undergraduate studies) and preparing to begin an MFA in Composition at Princeton, where he’s currently pursuing his Doctorate. Despite still being in school, he’s accumulated a truly staggering number of awards and performances — on all six permanently inhabited continents, according to his webpage — and I’m honestly kind of surprised I haven’t encountered more of his works. (The YCB played another of his band pieces, Sound and Smoke, in 2012.) I’m sure that will change going forward; he’s an excellent composer and his fame is only going to continue to grow.

Our focus today is on Moth, a piece he wrote in 2013 for the Brooklyn Wind Symphony, an all-volunteer ensemble in New York City. I’m not absolutely certain that the recording on Spotify is the première performance, but it’s a recording by the Brooklyn Wind Symphony from 2013, so even if it’s not the absolute première, it’s close. Cuong’s program note on his website is honestly kind of overwrought, but the gist of it is that the piece imagines the final moments of a moth drawn towards (and ultimately perishing in) a flame. And so the piece begins with undulating ripples in the clarinets interspersed with bright, pinging percussive hits, as tho suggesting a warm nocturnal landscape flecked with stars. These undulations quickly stitch themselves together into a glittering tapestry over a warm brass base, settling into a magical background texture for a fragmentary, darting theme that emerges from the flutes and then flits around the ensemble in a mercurial shifting of timbre and register.

Nocturnal tho the inspiration is, the musical landscape remains shot thru with light, and the first section builds to a blazing climax before bursting into a dramatic, thrilling dance. There are some playful moments where the full ensemble drops away to reveal one or two instruments in a jittery pas-de-deux, and then the music calms and quiets, making room for a return of the opening undulations. The texture is thicker now, more complicated, and more full of restless forward motion, as the moth draws ever closer to its fate. There is another expansive climax and another drifting away, almost into dreaming, but a nervous woodwind pulse injects an undercurrent of anxiety, and the music is soon hurtling forward once again. The frenetic dance returns with renewed vigor and terror — a sustained shrieking in the upper winds can only halt it for the briefest of moments — there is a panicked outburst, and then the immolation is upon us, and the piece ends with final violent bang.