silk execution  for five trombones, harp, piano and percussion


Francisco de Goya, The Third of May, 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid, 1814


Ensemble Rotterdam Conservatoire conducted by Hans Leenders, 1999.

Programme note for Canadian premiere, April 20, 2013

Silk Execution, version II, 2013

After seeing Francisco Goya’s painting, Execution of the Rebels, the idea for a composition came in a flash: brass instruments, lined-up in a row as executioners in a firing squad. At the time of writing the first version of Silk Execution I lived in Thailand and was drawn to the idea of silk, a valuable fabric spun from fibres of insect larvae. The pre-mature harvesting of a creature at its height of metamorphosis seemed so unfortunate and tragic, much like the plight of the rebels.

The violence associated with the above concept is musically translated through the use of clusters, used staccato in the foreground or as ‘cluster chorales’ in the background. A contrast to the clusters is formed when grand, more traditional ‘orchestral’ gestures appear during climaxes in the work. The percussion is largely characterized by repetitive rhythms based on Chinese Opera. The harmonium blends with the cluster chorales, whereas the piano emphasizes the harp. This is the second version of Silk Execution, where two of the five trombones in the original version are replaced by a French horn and tuba.

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For earlier performances at Rotterdam Biennal 1999 and Gaudeamus Festival 2000.

The concept of Silk Execution appeared in a flash after having seen the painting of Goya 'Execution of rebels of the 3rd of May': the trombones, lined up in a row as a kind of execution platoon.

This piece is based on the juxtaposition of ‘cluster chorales’ for trombones, set against percussion, as in Chinese opera. The cluster sound generally plays an important role, and includes the piano, although the piano also often reinforces the harp. The resulting ritualistic sound is festooned with soloist garlands by the harp.
The structure of the trombone clusters (the so-called ‘cluster chorales’) is dependent upon what is musically expressed. At times slowly performed clusters form a background for a virtuoso harp solo, at other times a quick sequence of staccato clusters commands our attention. A slowly performed cluster can consist of five tones, with one tone at a time changing, thus creating very subtle transitions. In this case the clusters are diatonic, as opposed to a more chromatic texture in the case of quick sequences of staccato clusters.
The percussion is largely characterized by a repetitive character. Some passages are completely determined by repetitive rhythms. A contrast to the clusters is formed by the trombones, which play more traditional "orchestral" octaves as a ceremonial gesture at significant climatical moments. At these moments the rest of the ensemble plays a subservient, or, if possible, a supportive role.

Written in 1999, the year I graduated from the Rotterdam Conservatoire, Silk Execution is dedicated to my teacher, composer Peter-Jan Wagemans, with whom I studied for 6 years. The work was first performed in 1999 in the hall of the old building of the Rotterdam Conservatoire by students conducted by Hans Leenders, and subsequently received a performance a year later during the Gaudeamus week by Holland Symfonia conducted by Fabrice Bollon.

Press cutting
Music Biennal Rotterdam started
From: NRC Handelsblad October 18, 1999
By: Ernst Vermeulen

Most evocative I thought was Silk Execution by Edward Top, who, following the style of Rihm, has five trombones played cluster chorales, placed against- and mixed with percussion as in Chinese opera, coloured by a harp, piano and harmonium. Slow-moving clusters are developed diatonically, fast staccato clusters chromatically. Especially the harmonium mixes well with the low brass, the percussion is a little overdone, but near the end a force of direction is inevitably achieved in this ritual.

Naar aanleiding van het schilderij 'Executie van Rebellen van de 3e Mei' van Goya verscheen het concept van Silk Execution in een flits; de in een rij opgestelde vijf trombonisten als executiepeleton.

Uitgangspunt van dit stuk is het tegen elkaar zetten van clusterkoralen die geïnstrumenteerd zijn voor trombones tegen op chinese opera geënt slagwerk. Over dit klankresultaat van ritueel karakter worden solistische harpguirlandes gedrapeerd. De clusterklank speelt over het algemeen een belangrijke rol, ook voor de piano hoewel deze vaak met de harp meegaat.
De structuur in detail van de opeenvolgingen van trombone-clusters (de zgn. 'clusterkoralen') is afhankelijk van wat er muzikaal gezegd dient te worden; zijn het langzaam gespeelde clusters als achtergrond gelegd tegen een virtuose harpsolo of snel opeenvolgende en staccato-gespeelde clusters die alle aandacht opeisen. In het eerste geval kan in een vijftonige clustergang bijvoorbeeld telkens één toon veranderen wat de overgangen zeer subtiel maakt. De clusters zijn in dit geval van diatonisch karakter tegenover het meer chromatische karakter in het tweede geval.
In de meeste gevallen is het slagwerkkenmerk van repititief karakter. Sommige passages worden slechts bepaald door repititieve ritmiek.
Als contrast met de clusters komt in de trombones ook traditionele "orkestrale" octavering als plechtig gebaar voor dat op belangrijke plekken in de compositie climaxen bepaald. Op deze punten vormt de rest van het ensemble een ondergeschikte of (indien mogelijk) een ondersteunende rol.
Geschreven in 1999, het jaar dat ik afstudeerde aan het Rotterdams Conservatorium, Silk Execution is aan mijn leraar en componist, Peter-Jan Wagemans opgedragen.

Rehearsal for Canadian performance of Silk Execution by the Vancouver Symphony conducted by Gordon Gerrard, Vancouver April, 2013.