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Into a world unknown

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Harrison J. Collins

Harrison J. Collins

Subtitle: For Reed Octet

General Info

Year: 2022
Duration: c. 5:25
Difficulty: (see Ratings for explanation)
Publisher: J Stands for J Music
Cost: Score and Parts - Unknown


Full Score
English Horn
E-flat Soprano Clarinet
B-flat Soprano Clarinet
B-flat Bass Clarinet
B-flat Contrabass Clarinet


None discovered thus far.

Program Notes

I composed Into a world unknown for the fall 2022 TCU [Texas Christian University] 24-Hour Composition Competition. It’s a voluntary competition held by the student composers at TCU every semester. The rules are simple: armed with only a prompt provided by the TCU composition professors, our mission (should we choose to accept it) is to compose a chamber work with an instrumentation of our choosing within twenty-four hours. It’s enormously fun, and also a wonderful challenge; with only a day to compose the work, one doesn't really have much time to question oneself. I tend to get paralyzed by the fear that what I’m writing isn’t “good enough”, and I end up not being able to put a note on the page. I’ve been spending a lot of time in recent months trying to get better at working with this issue of mine, and this competition is a perfect way to continue doing so because I don’t have the time to get paralyzed! It forces me to trust my instincts and write. Perhaps this piece is not my best work ever, but for me, that’s not the point; the point is that I can write an entire chamber piece in a day, and one that is, hopefully, interesting and engaging.

As I mentioned, competitors do get a prompt. The prompts vary quite a bit; when I participated in the fall 2021 competition, the prompt was a set of verbal guidelines based on the Fibonacci sequence (this resulted in my percussion quintet, A Page from the Book of Nature). This year, the prompt was simply a painting: Isle of Joy by Marion Peck. Check it out and you’ll see quickly that it’s … creepy. Three horridly proportioned and color-coded clowns are guiding three small children to a boat in a flowery lakeside. Ostensibly, if you interpret it like I did, these clowns are looking to take the children to the titular Isle of Joy. What is this Isle of Joy? Does it live up to its name? Or is it a scary, murdery clown land? Do all clowns have to be scary and murdery? Are these good, classic, funny clowns? Am I judging the clowns too harshly? What does this say about our society’s view on clowns? What have we been conditioned to feel about clowns over time? The questions are endless.

When this competition came up, I had happened to be revisiting a Sacred Harp melody that I love, entitled Idumea. I know about it, and the concept of Sacred Harp, thanks to one of my all-time favorite works for band, Sacred Harp by Jay Bocook. For the first time, I took the time to really soak in the lyrics to the tune:

And am I born to die?
To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?

(Lyrics continue)

The thing that really stuck with me about these lyrics was the fear of the unknown -- the idea that, after death, you will be taken on a path and not know where it leads. Will it lead to that land of deepest shade? Or somewhere brighter? An Isle of Joy, perhaps? Or a murdery clown land? I felt the connection immediately. I decided to use this beautiful tune as the central motif for the work, and to frame the piece as if it is taking the listener on the boat ride to the “Isle of Joy”, taking on Idumea’s themes of internal struggle with the fear of the unknown place we are making our way towards. It followed logically that a lyric taken from the song, Into a world unknown, would make a wonderful title.

I also decided quickly that I wanted to score it for what I’m referring to as a “reed octet”; I recently had a dream that I had composed a piece for this sort of instrumentation and I was quite proud of it. So, it goes as follows: oboe, English horn, bassoon, contrabassoon, Eb soprano clarinet, Bb clarinet, bass clarinet, and contrabass clarinet. This way, you’re getting the full range of both the double reed and clarinet families, and their somewhat nasal and vocal tones combine to create an incredibly rich composite timbre. So, my secondary goal for this work was to use it as a sort of proof-of-concept for this ensemble. I’ll see what issues it may present when I get into rehearsing this work this coming semester!

I wanted the work to have a dark, eerie opening, and I decided to take a note from the opening of another one of my favorite works for wind ensemble, Edges by James Mobberley. Dr. Mobberley begins the piece with indeterminate “noodling” in the bass clarinet and timpani, notating only the start and end notes. I LOVE that sound, and borrowing it for my own work helped me to set the mood and allowed me to create elaborate lines without writing out specific chromatic passages (that takes time, and time is of the essence when you only have 24 hours!). I ended up weaving this technique throughout the entire work, and it became a vital part of what gives the piece its wild and unruly edge.

There’s one final piece to this puzzle: early in the composition process, I explained to my older brother what I was doing and showed him the painting. After telling him, he nonchalantly and mostly jokingly said, “So naturally you have to include Send in the Clowns”. And, well, I had 24 hours to compose this piece so I didn’t quite have all my normal decision-making filters in place. Sue me. I thought it was a wonderful idea, and I decided my justification for it is that the song refers to clowns in their most positive sense: the be-funny-and-make-everyone-laugh-and-feel-better kind of clowns. So the melody represents the ideal version of what we could potentially be approaching on this boat ride. If Idumea re presents the fear of going to a bad place, Send in the Clowns represents the hope of going to a good place (insert The Good Place reference here). Actually, that does remind me -- I decided to pull an all-nighter to compose this piece. I began composing around 9:00 p.m. (the prompt was revealed around 8:30), and reached the double bar line around 10:30 a.m. So here’s your The Good Place reference: later that day, I quoted Chidi by telling my partner “I’m so tired I can’t even regrender my chorf”. I decided that it probably wasn’t up to me to decide what actually lies at the end of our boat ride, so I tried not to make it too obvious one way or another. Instead, it ends with a reference to our eerie opening, with our conflicted internal monologue reaching a fever pitch. I’ll admit that the ending sounds a little bit silly with the MIDI; I think and hope it will be more effective when real humans play it. I was thinking about the end of They Might Be Gods by John Leszczynski, so if you want to hear what I think my ending will sound like, go listen to his piece (it’s really good!).

So, anyway, that’s the run-down! I hope you enjoy Into a world unknown, and please let me know if you do! I’ll admit that I don’t suspect this piece is going to be in my purchasable catalogue -- but I’m pretty hard on myself, and if other people feel that this ought to be available, I may publish it. For the time being, I’ll work on getting it premiered this coming fall. I hope you enjoy the music!

- Program Note by composer


State Ratings

None discovered thus far.


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  • Texas Christian University (Fort Worth) Wind Symphony (Harrison J. Collins, conductor) - 17 November 2022

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