Degrees of Freedom

I wrote Degrees of Freedom at the request of Ensemble Matisse. The title refers to a concept in statistics and probability distributions, but can also be understood as the ‘cloisters’ a composer builds from which he is constantly driven to escape at the same time. It is a truism that freedom cannot exist without boundaries. In music, in all art, if not in life itself, true freedom is expressed in the dynamics between chosen or imposed boundaries, and the desire to put them to the test – to breaking point if necessary. In a work of art these boundaries are felt in measures of consistency and logic on every level that the artist is able to manipulate his materials. It is so central to human life that our wellbeing and identity are virtually governed by it. We are all prisoners of one kind or another and express our passion for life – in many cases for sheer survival – in the pursuit of this most precious of possessions, which can be abused or put to good use.

Talking of which – the instrumental ensemble, although not entirely unique, became legendary after Messiaen wrote his Quatuor pour la fin du temps for the four musicians who happened to be among his fellow prisoners in a prisoner-of-war camp. When Ensemble Matisse invited me to write a new piece, I was just about to start up a piano trio (violin, cello and piano). The addition of the clarinet suddenly opened a whole new timbre dimension that gave rise to fresh ideas. Although very familiar with Messiaen’s work, I allowed the music to veer off in totally different directions, some of which may take the listener by surprise and add a new meaning to the concept of ‘degrees of freedom’.