Desire Lines

for solo alto flute

James Erber

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for solo alto flute

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Composer James Erber
Year of Composition 2013-2014
Duration 13' 40"

Instrumentation Alto Flute
Categories (all composers) , ,
Catalogue ID ce-je1dl1


A desire path (or desire line) is “an informal path that pedestrians prefer to take to get from one location to another rather than using a sidewalk or other official route”.

In my piece, Desire Lines for solo alto flute, the title refers both to the work’s structure, and to the linearity of the instrumental writing. I also like to think that it conjures up the atmosphere of dreamy, slightly edgy sensuality, so typical of the alto flute, which infuses much of the work: during the composition process, I had in mind the nocturnal wanderings through sinister byways in the edgelands of suburban London, which feature in the stories of Edwardian writer Arthur Machen, and the streets (replete with rich architectural detail) of my own dreams.

In Desire Lines, four twenty-bar loops are repeated and subjected to between four and seven levels of variative activity. Three of these loops are interwoven, creating force fields, which nudge the music along parallel but differing routes. The fourth loop fractures this easy-going coexistence. Its four sections, each marked “quasi cadenza”, constitute the most radical music in the piece. Inserted into the discourse at randomly determined points, they juxtapose music of extreme activity and extreme stasis, which tip the work over from somnolent desire to nightmarish destruction. The inspiration for this music was the extraordinar y painting “An Explosion in a Cathedral” by the 17th Century mannerist François Nomé (“Monsù Desiderio”), in which an explosion (on the right hand side of the canvas) is contrasted with the solidity of a group of columns (on the left), which remains untouched by the destruction.

The painting also contains a human element. Two groups of people, in the middle and the left of the canvas, are engaged in vandalising the statues, which ornament the interior of the building (hence, presumably the painting’s alternative title, “King Asa of Judah Destroying the Idols”). After I had finished the piece, it occurred to me that the flautist performing the work is related to this human element, not as an analogy, but as a positive counterbalance to the appalling acts being carried out in the name of humanity.

Desire Lines was composed between December 2013 and March 2014, and given its first performance by Carlton Vickers on April 24th 2015 at the Slosberg Music Center, Brandeis University, Boston MA, as part of the Leonard Bernstein Festival of Music.

The original version of this work is for Kingma System alto flute. It was revised in March 2021 , as Version (b), which is playable on standard alto flute. Please select your required version above when ordering.