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Cyclops 2000

2(picc)12(bcl)1 2110 vib/mar,hp,pf,2vn,2va,2vc,cb

CYCLOPS (2000) was composed between 7 February and 9 August 2000. The work was written for Oliver Knussen and the London Sinfonietta. The first performance was given by the London Sinfonietta conducted by Oliver Knussen on 16 May 2001 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. The work is scored for 2 flutes (second doubling piccolo), oboe, 2 clarinets in A, bassoon, 2 horns, trumpet in C, trombone, harp piano, mallet percussion (marimba and vibraphone), 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 celli, contrabass.

Cyclops is in a single long movement lasting about twenty-four minutes. During this time, rather like the stock market, it proceeds by fits and starts along a trend line, which (unlike the stock market) always points upward. This monomaniacal aspect of the piece is one reason for its monocular title. But another has to do with the fits and starts. Part of the work’s design employs cycles of recurrence under progressively (though irregularly) compressed circumstances, leading in the end to a very dense environment that finally resolves into a short episode of periodicity, the work’s culmination. In this way, an old-fashioned narrative form is given contemporary clothing.

The single eye of Cyclops, however, is compound. This insectile character is produced by the way the instruments behave. There are pairs of instruments that make duets, sections of instruments that make duets with other sections, and solos that have their own lives.

Atypically for me, the piece has come out in a single constant meter. But against this I have set nearly constant tempo changes, some gradual, others abrupt. In part this is a tribute to the conducting skill and incomparable musicianship of Oliver Knussen, for whom the work was written.

CW, November 2000


Charles Wuorinen is one of the most respected, prolific composers working today, but much better known in his native America than Europe. It is ironic because his music is far more directly related to European modernism than American experimentalism. Yet Wuorinen has not been widely adopted by the great European orchestras.

Oliver Knussen's concert sought to redress the balance with the world premiere of Cyclops, a single-movement, 25-minute structure scored for 21-piece ensemble. Its title derives from the music's tendency, as Wuorinen puts it, to "always point upward", but its real fascination is the way this is undermined by volatile changes of tempo and mood. Knussen depicted its kaleidoscopic vision with brilliant assurance.

However, there was dramatic immediacy as well as abstract structure: fanfares for brass alternated with violent woodwind squalls, before effusive solos for piano and languid cor anglais melodies grew out of the texture. There was genuine musical purpose behind this febrile exterior. Nowhere was this clearer than at the conclusion, with the players finding common purpose in a noisily repeated chord. But this was no comfortable resolution: there emerged in the aftermath a subversively quiet chord played by woodwind choir. Like the whole piece, the end was vividly poised between stability and instability."
The Guardian