FANTASIA ON AN OSTINATO is based on a famous repetitive passage by Ludwig van Beethoven (Symphony No. 7, second movement). That music is unique in Beethoven’s output because of a relentless ostinato that continues, unvaried except for a long crescendo and added accompanimental voices, for over four minutes. Beethoven’s near-minimalistic use of his material and my own desire to write a piece in which the performer is responsible for decisions concerning the durations of repeated patterns, led to my first experiment in so-called minimalist techniques.
I approached this task with mixed feelings about the contemporary phenomenon known as minimalism, for while I admire its emphasis on attractive textures and its occasional ability to achieve a hypnotic quality (not unlike some late Beethoven), I do not care for its excessive repetition, its lack of architecture and its overall emotional sterility.
In Fantasia on an Ostinato I attempted to combine the attractive aspects of minimalism with convincing structure and emotional expression. My method was to parallel the binary form of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony ostinato by dividing the Fantasia into two parts. The first explores the rhythmic elements of the ostinato as well as the harmonic implications of its first half, while the second develops and extends the ostinato’s second half, transforming its pungent major-minor descent into a chain of harmonies over which a series of patterns grows continually more ornate. This climaxes in a return of the obsessive Beethoven rhythm and, finally, the appearance of the Beethoven theme itself.