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Robert Saxton

Publisher: Chester Music

A Yardstick to the Stars (1995)
commissioned by the Nash Ensemble with funds provided by the London Arts Board
Chester Music Ltd
Small Ensemble (2-6 players)
Year Composed
25 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
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Programme Note
Robert Saxton A Yardstick to the Stars (1995)
When Amelia Freedman asked me to write a piece for the Nash Ensemble, I sensed at once the sound-world of the piece I wanted to compose. Gradually, details formed and I decided that a piano quintet was to be my challenge. The formal aspects of the piece then came into focus. Piano and string instruments are fundamentally incompatible, the former equal-tempered tuning being at odds with string intonation. Although I wanted an overall harmonic coherence, the exact formal process which emerged stems from the idea of divergence within a unified field. As I begun to sketch, I read a fascinating book by Morris Kline called 'Mathematics in Western Culture' and was struck by a chapter about the birth of trigonometry in the second century B.C. in Rhodes. This chapter is entitled 'Racing a Yardstick to the Stars'. My interest in Time has long been coupled with ideas relating to philosophy and mathematics and Kline helped to complete my formal/ conceptual jigsaw puzzle by explaining what a significant leap forward was made by the ancient Greeks when fill they discovered how to measure planetary distances proportionally.

I related this directly to the music I was hearing by drawing a horizontal straight line and a semicircle - or arc - which meets the line at each end. (If the circle was completed, the horizontal would become its diameter). This horizontal became the 'real' time of the piece, to be played by the strings, and the 'arc' is the time-line for the piano, and also represents half a planetary cycle. (I chose a semicircle rather than a 'correct' ellipse for convenience of working). If the arc was flattened, it is obvious that the piano would complete its music several minutes after the strings had finished the piece! The piano therefore plays proportionally quicker than the strings; the strings following with transformations of the piano's music. There are four movements which play without a break - the piano begins and the strings enter with more slowly-changing music. The piano pulls .I ahead, eventually breaking into a dance - its second movement. Simultaneously the strings continue their first movement with short solos before they, too, reach the dance. During the latter, the piano begins the sustained third movement which forms a slow harmonic background to the strings' continuing dance, when they arrive at the third movement, the piano is already ending its sustained music and fades out. The quartet plays most of the 'real' third movement alone; the music reaches a climax, but the piano has already started the final section. This is quick and culminates in a final paradox: the last part of the fourth movement works through the opening music of the piece palindromically - with the harmony re-worked, of course - the piano ending the work with a climatic ascending passage, which is the initial descending passage in reverse. The question is therefore posed as to which strand of the process is, or has been, 'ahead' of which - the final ascent might well 'fold over' on itself, and descend, to begin the piece again.

'A Yardstick to the Stars' is concerned with proportional Time and Distance as related to the heavens; its time-cycle, represents the planets' elliptical orbits moving like cogwheels and the music realises. I hope, the brightness and eternally changing quality of light. It is dedicated to Amelia Freedman and the players of the Nash Ensemble.

  • Ensemble
    Brunel Ensemble
    Christopher Austin
the pianist…and the string players…had their skills tested by Robert Saxton’s challenging and striking A Yardstick to the Stars, written in 1995…Once again, trigonometry provided the composer’s spark…The farther Saxton’s game proceeded, the more involving it grew.
Geoff Brown, The Times,01/07/2011
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