The Music of Eugene O'Brien
Embarking for Cythera
Indiana University New Music Ensemble
While reading an essay by Giovanni Macchia on the 18th-century French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau during the summer of 1978 I was struck by a paragraph describing the island of Cythera, the subject of one of Watteau's most celebrated paintings, L'Embarquement pour l'îsle de Cythère:
The myth of the island of Cythera, or of love, has distant roots in French and Italian culture, in which the journey is depicted as a difficult quest. Cythera is a paradise wavering in the ephemeral and in artifice; it represents an invitation to delights amid the enchantment of nature. It is an island toward which the pilgrims embark but never arrive; it preserves its light only if it remains far on the horizon.
It was this short description of the mythical island, rather than Watteau's painting itself, which inspired the general atmosphere of Embarking for Cythera , a brief ten-minute, one-movement work for eight players written that summer. The piece attempts to capture Macchia's senseof wavering in the ephemeral and in artifice by means of evanescent timbres, textures and harmonies, implying perhaps that the music's stability and moments of arrival like the island itself are just out of reach.
The somewhat unorthodox instrumentation of the work has a less poetic origin. That same summer, composer and colleague Donald Erb and I started to form a professional fifteen-instrument new music ensemble in Cleveland, a group we ultimately named Reconnaissance. At the point I began composing Embarking for Cythera, eight players had joined, so I limited the instrumentation to those particular eight. Reconnaissance gave the piece its first performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music in January 1979 under the direction of John Ross, and later in Carnegie Recital Hall, New York, under the direction of Larry Baker.