Two oboes and harpsichord brings to mind such a typically baroque formation (usually with a cello or bassoon laying down the bass line) that an immediate assumption would be that À l’écoute were some kind of neo-baroque concoction. However, when being asked to write a work for two oboes for the 2005 Ostrava Oboe Festival in the Czech Republic, my choice of a harpsichord was motivated not because of its baroque past, but for its brittle, pungent sound. It serves to contrast to the long, sinuous lines of the oboe. In approaching this piece, the inspiration was specifically not to write a baroque-influenced piece, but to create a different sound world. Rather than interweaving lines and counterpoint (as in the wondrous Trio Sonatas by the Czech baroque master Zelenka), in À l’écoute, the two oboes stand out as separate personalities. Opening the work, the first oboe (Marlen Vavřikovà) betrays an insistent searching quality. Embedded into its melodic line is a slow chromatic descent. By contrast, the second oboe (Richard Killmer) has a quiet, confident lyricism. The two oboes do not stay silent during each other’s solos. Rather, the other oboist often plays in rhythmic unison with the upper line giving it an added dimension. Although this is really a story about the two oboes, the harpsichord has a very important secondary role. It enlarges the sound palette and generates settings through which the oboes speak.
As the piece evolves, the intensity of the first oboe pervades various sections and the second oboe’s lyricism predominates in others. They journey very closely together and journey far – from the vigorous rhythmic unison that has characterized certain passages to a section of great freedom where each player follows a different tempo (during the rapid, wave-like arpeggios of the harpsichord). After reaching an impassioned oboe outpouring, the work suddenly descends – all players moving downward chromatically. The following coda is a celebration of arrival.
“À l’écoute”, a favorite phrase of my mother’s, means literally “at the listen”. To be “à l’écoute” is to be attentive, aware, and poised – all in the moment. This seemed appropriate both to the trajectory of the piece and the general atmosphere of quiet intensity that characterizes much of the work.