When Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra asked me to write a concerto for timpani and orchestra, I reacted spontaneously like most composers would do: is it possible to write a solo concerto for an instrument with so many limitations? Pitchwise they cover less than two octaves, and though pedals have made a fairly fast retuning of a timpano, a free and fluid melodical writing is impossible. On top of everything, the instrument lacks what seems to be the sine qua non of a solo concerto: an emotionally charged voice.
My final acceptance of and enthusiasm for the idea emanated maybe from these facts. I always have had problems with the concept of the solo concerto, as I have regarded it as an egocentric residue of the romantic era, where the task of the orchestra has been to highlight the brilliant ego. Besides this, I have always been fascinated by the timpanist's role in the classical orchestra, as an alternative power centre in the implicit hierarchy of the orchestra, a sort of anti-hero. The instrument has a tremendous dynamical span, from the overwhelming to the hardly audible, and at the same time it has a quality I value highly, both with persons and instruments: a refreshing absence of sentimentality.
Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.
"But which is the stone that supports the bridge?" Kublai Khan asks.
"The bridge is not supported by this stone or another," Marco answers, "but by the line of the arch that they form."
Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: "Why do you speak of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me."
Polo answers: "Without stones there is no arch."
I read this paragraph from the novel "Invisible Cities" by Italo Calvino in the middle of the process of writing the concerto, and it struck me that this was what the piece was all about: The interdependence between every little musical event and the underlying form, how one cannot exist without the other.
The form of the Timpani Concerto resembles such a bridge, or arch. After a short, hectic introduction, a discharge to a point zero from where anything can happen, a slow build-up starts, pointing towards the equally hectic final bars. The bridge is not exposed in one coherent span, but all the parts are there, in a non-linear order, as in a cubistic painting. And the metaphor carries on into the micro plane: this span is formed by a limited, but varied selection of small musical building blocks. On a local level, they form a complex and continuously changing pattern, but seen as a whole, they constitute a simple form, a bridge from absolute silence to a hurricane of sound.
© Rolf Wallin