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Though music is sound, my job is visual—finding a way to represent that sound on the page and convey that information to the performers—so it is no surprise that I am often inspired by visual art. Plumb is a concerto for contrabassoon and large ensemble that takes its title from the “plumb line” paintings of Jean McEwen (1923-1999, Montreal). McEwen’s vibrant large-scale works are richly coloured by many layers of paint, with a strong relationship to visual rhythm and shape. My music, too, is composed and coloured in layers, within a carefully structured framework. McEwen’s trademark use of bold vertical lines defines and gives depth to the visual space. Like a plumb line, Plumb drops to the lowest registers where the contrabassoon lives while “plumbing the depths” musically, emotionally and dramatically.
The piece is cast in five movements. The first movement Dropping Down descends quickly into contrabassoon territory, introducing the soloist with a cadenza accompanied by evocative sounds from the harp and piano. This leads directly into Reaching Out, a moody exploration of dark colours, with the solo contrabassoon echoed by bass clarinet and muted trombone. The third movement, Building Up, unfolds at breakneck speed, adding layer upon layer of colour and rhythm. Sinking In is another extended solo cadenza, highlighting the lyrical qualities and unique sound of the contrabassoon. This lyricism continues into the finale Coming To, with the soloist layered on a soft distant cloud of strings which gradually clears and comes into focus as one by one the rest of the ensemble joins in. The work closes with gentle musing from the contrabassoon as glockenspiel, piano and harp sparkle high above.
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