Caravan, commissioned by the University of Essex, with funds provided by the Eastern Arts Association and members of the University's regular concert audience to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Gabrieli String Quartet, is a short (approximately 8-minute) piece based on one simple idea, the notion of a gradual crescendo. Thus, it starts very quietly and hesitantly ppp and finishes extremely vigorously and aggressively fff. The process of getting from one extreme to the other is a series of stages, at each of which the dynamic is lifted one level.
The other feature of the piece is that it is based on a scale (D, E, F, G, A flat, B flat, B natural, C sharp, D), and at each increase of dynamic the basic key note moves up also, to the next note of the scale. At the conclusion of the piece, the scales themselves rush around, finally settling on a repeated unison D.
The title refers to the idea of a desert Caravan, approaching from the distance, and in a way refers to the optical illusion of gradually increasing pace as a distant object gets nearer and nearer, when it appears to be moving ever faster even though it might be travelling at the same speed throughout. Apart from four numbered pieces entitled Desert, each with a different subtitle and scored for different forces, there are several offshoots of this series, ranging from a work for the King's Singers to pieces for solo double bass, and, in this case, string quartet.
© John McCabe