Nick Vasallo – “The Moment Before Death Sretches on Forever, Like an Ocean of Time…”

Nick Vasallo is a young up and coming  composer from California. He has written choral works, chamber music and pieces that experiment with electric guitars, bass and drumset that blends influences from classical music and death metal. “The Moment Before Death Stretches…” is a piece for chamber orchestra that calls for a variety of instruments, some of which use extended techniques, making good use of the timbral palette. The orchestration calls for: percussion (vibraphone, cymbals, concert toms) piano, strings (violin and cello) brass (trombone, baritone sax) woodwinds (oboe, flute) electric guitar, synthesizer and vocals.

The video starts with a stopwatch which serves as a guide for the musicians. There is no conductor, but each player has written cues indicating what and when to play. At the beginning we hear a very low pitch being played on the contrabass with a bow. Then, the percussionist also uses a bow to rub a key from the vibraphone, producing a piercing, high pitched sound. She adds cymbal effects while the contrabass keeps repeating the same note. The mass of sound starts intensifying and getting more and more dense with the addition of strings and what sounds like throat singing or a didgeridoo at a soft volume, possibly played on a synth or from a laptop computer. Afterwards, the pianist plays by herself, repeating the same pitch the contrabass was playing but creating a very cool effect that sounds sort of like a reverb. This is achieved by pressing some of the piano keys halfway, creating sympathetic resonance. All of this makes it sound even more ominous, anticipating the huge sound that’s about to arrive. The pianist plays in unison with the percussionist with one hand and with the other rubs a screwdriver against the piano strings. Then, a throbbing, steady and low pitched sound makes an appearance and introduces more string instruments which start playing along with the electronic low end sound. The ensemble starts building up, playing faster and louder, with the percussion pounding on the concert toms until the music erupts in loud, steady, slow attacks. In this section we hear brass, strings, percussion and piano along with the electronic low end. This part reminds me of the suspenseful feeling used by many composers in movie trailers.

The next section begins with the piano playing fast repeated notes in octaves for a brief moment and then comes to a halt. The electric guitar makes an entrance by itself, and then more of the vibraphone bowing before we hear delicate singing by female vocalists with the strings playing long notes, getting louder and doing glissando up the instrument. Suddenly, the throbbing low end sound is played again by the brass on the same pitch, while a flute plays fast flurries and the percussionist plays fast, loud and aggressively on the concert toms. The ensemble stops suddenly, leaving only a faint sound lingering, only to begin again on a loud tutti but this time on a different pitch. At this point, the shift in pitch feels like we have arrived to a climactic resolution, with the brass providing the low end and the piano playing rapid notes in octaves, while the strings play tremolos and trills and the soprano sings high notes with vibrato technique. I would compare this section to a fermata at the end of a concerto. This part is cut off abruptly, giving us a nice contrast, and the piece ends with a sort of codetta that has very soft singing by the alto, along with violin and cello holding long notes for a few seconds until the piece comes to an end.

The piece has no formal bar lines, melodies or motifs, or even a clear structural scheme. Rather it is more of an experiment on timbre, sound combinations and pure expression.

In the attached link we can see a performance recorded by Wild Rumpus, a chamber ensemble that focuses on music from living composers.

For more information, check out the websites of the ensemble and the composer:

The website where I originally found this music is:


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