Occam's Razor

Complete Work Title: 

Occam's Razor — seven studies for ten players

Performance Medium: 

flute (dbl. piccolo and alto flute), English horn, Bb/A clarinet (dbl. Bb bass clarinet), C/Bb trumpet, F horn, percussion, harp, harpsichord, viola, contrabass.

  1. estuary (chaotic fugato quasi toccata)
  2. au seuil de la ruine (notturno interrotto)
  3. one of many circles (hyperfractal variants)
  4. maßenkristalle (loxodromic chaconne)
  5. the myth of eternal return (entropic ostinato)
  6. crown knots & cascades (meta-rondo in chiasmus)
  7. time's maw (moto perpetuo)



Date Composed: 

July - December, 1994; March, 1996; June, 1998 - February, 1999

Additional Information: 
  • Supported in part by a Composer Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Faculty Research Grant from the University of North Texas.
  • Included on the CD Equipoise — Music of Joseph Klein and William Kleinsasser (innova 611, 2005).

Performance/Broadcast History: 
  • 3 December 2009; Indiana University Jacobs School of Music

    David Dzubay, Indiana University New Music Ensemble

  • 8 March 1999; University of North Texas Winspear Hall [premiere of complete work]

    Joseph Klein, North Texas Faculty Chamber Ensemble

  • 16 January 1995 [movements I, III, IV, & VII only]; Rodef Shalom (Pittsburgh, PA)

    David Stock, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble

Program Notes: 

Composed between May of 1994 and February of 1999, Occam's Razor is a collection of seven brief studies for ten players intended as an exploration of a variety of musical procedures, structural devices, and interdisciplinary references. Numerical sequences serve as the basic organizing element, from the micro-level rhythmic and pitch cells, to movement durations (resulting in a proportional ratio of 7:8:5:11:6:10:9), to the instrumentation itself (one percussion, two brass, three woodwinds, four strings). Moreover, the work is constructed as a dynamic unfolding of "sub-ensembles" within the whole; thus, the work comprises ten solo sections, nine duos, eight trios, etc., with only a single section that includes the entire complement of ten players. The work’s title refers to a principle devised by the English philosopher William of Occam (c.1285 - c.1349) which states that where more than one theory exists, the simplest one should be applied; also known as the law of parsimony, "Occam's Razor" implies a degree of complexity beyond that which is manifest.

The first study of the set, estuary(chaotic fugato quasi toccata), takes as its metaphorical model a geological formation—specifically, the point where a river is met by the tides at an inlet of the sea. The movement is loosely fugal, though the character is reminiscent of a toccata (a rapid, florid, introductory movement); in this instance, the structure is derived from chaos theory, whereby erratic oscillations create bifurcations within the texture (musically represented by the splitting of a single line, first into two parts, then four, then seven). The point at which a river meets the sea displays a similar type of turbulent behavior.

The second study, au seuil de la ruine(notturno interrotto), is in two equal parts, the first of which consists of a cluster derived from two octatonic collections (pivoting around a central E-flat) which undergoes a gradual registral expansion and rhythmic compression. This opening section is interrupted by three brief, unrelated episodes, the first of which returns prior to a highly condensed recapitulation of the opening section in retrograde. The movement’s title (“on the threshold of decay”) refers to a painting by surrealist artist René Magritte, Au Seuil de la Liberté (On the Threshold of Liberty, 1929), as considered through the deconstructionist prism of Jacques Derrida.

The third study, one of many circles(hyperfractal variants), consists simply of thirteen brief statements of a motive in various guises. The distilled, self-similar quality of these variants reflects the influence of fractal geometry—a term coined by Belgian mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot to classify those fragmented and irregular structures that are not represented in classic Euclidean geometry. The title is from a line in Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (1917), which also served as a model for this study.

The fourth study, maßenkristalle(loxodromic chaconne), is modeled after the Baroque chaconne, or continuous variation process. The chaconne subject consists of an eleven-note row which gradually spirals upward in pitch while simultaneously descending in register through a series of octave displacements; thus, it is similar in design to a loxodrome—an imaginary line on the surface of a sphere which is oblique to the equator, crossing all meridians at the same angle in a spiral path toward the pole. The title is from Elias Canetti's book Maße und Macht(Crowds and Power, 1960) and refers to the loss of individual identity experienced during the formation of a crowd, initiated by what Canetti refers to as Maßenkristalle or “crowd crystals.”

The fifth study, the myth of eternal return (entropic ostinato), consists of a disintegrating ostinato texture that is followed by a brief coda reminiscent of the second movement notturno. The title comes from the opening ruminations of Milan Kundera’s novelThe Unbearable Lightness of Being(1984), in which the author reflects upon (and ultimately rejects) Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return. Kundera’s contemplation of an existence that recurs ad infinitum—becoming “a solid mass, permanently protuberant”—and the inherent weight of such a burden is the basic premise of the novel, and the conceptual germ of this movement.

The sixth study, crown knots & cascades(meta-rondo in chiasmus), consists of two intertwined processes: the first process is associated with a core unit of three instruments—bass clarinet, trumpet, and viola—and is characterized by a decrease in tempo (from MM 180 to MM 90) and unit size (from seven to three instruments) throughout; the second process is associated with a core unit of three different instruments—piccolo, harpsichord, and contrabass—and is characterized by an increase in tempo (from MM 60 to MM 120) and unit size (from three to seven). These two processes are presented in alternation, resulting in a palindrome that crosses at brief overlapping solos in the trumpet and harpsichord. The title is drawn from a line in Alice Fulton’s poem “Volunteers” (from Sensual Math, 1995), part of a sequence that draws upon genetic crossover as a significant aspect of its trope and subject.

The seventh study, time's maw (moto perpetuo), deals with the perception of time and its passage. The title is borrowed from a line in John Ashbery's poem “All and Some” (from the collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1974), and the musical model is that of a moto perpetuo (a short piece built upon repetitive patterns). The pitch material is derived from “The Westminster Chimes” melody, which is subjected to various temporal and pitch distortions, and a kinetic intensification that ultimately leads to a complete textural saturation.

Occam’s Razor was supported in part by a Composer Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Faculty Research Grant from the University of North Texas. The complete work was premiered on 8 March 1999 at the University of North Texas by the UNT Faculty Chamber Ensemble, conducted by the composer. It is included on the album Equipoise (innova 611, 2005).