When I was an undergraduate, the composition faculty issued an edict that, until further notice, we were not to use ostinatos in the music we were writing for our lessons. The professors clearly believed that we were using ostinatos (and other techniques/devices like tone rows and drones) as crutches to “automatically” generate stretches of music, some of whose details fairly set themselves down onto paper by themselves.
I almost hurt myself rolling my eyes up in my head in response, but I complied. There is no doubt that these and other techniques can take over a composers’ music and that comp teachers do have a responsibility to guide and evaluate the student’s technical abilities. These techniques can, in addition to generating large numbers of notes, mask a great many compositional “sins”. On the other hand, if the music works, and that’s a judgement best made by the composer with the assistance of the teacher, there’s no good reason not to use them.
I started thinking about this subject when I first heard some music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir a few months ago, when she was named the New York Philharmonic Kravis Emerging Composer. Drones are an essential component of Thorvaldsdottir’s art, and she uses them in surprisingly different ways. On her new disc, In the Light of Air, the drones are used in service of a varied and artistically unified expressive landscape.
The sections of In the Light of Air each have titles that point to a measurement of physical condition (“Luminance”), an existential condition (“Existence”), and feeling states or states of being (“Serenity”, “Remembrance”) that animate the sections so titled. Over the course of the 45 or so minutes of Light, Thorvaldsdottir deploys her drones in surprising and expressive contexts, illuminating the idea behind each section clearly and with style, grounding each piece in rich earth.
Though this is not-quite-a-review of this disc, I also wanted to say that Transitions (for solo cello, played beautifully here by Michael Nicolas, for whom it was composed) is a very fine piece. The performance of In the Light of Air, by the powerhouse International Contemporary Ensemble is expert and expressive, and both the Blu-Ray and CD sound is superb.
 A short melodic fragment repeated throughout a piece or section of a piece. An ostinato typically remains at the same pitch level and doesn’t vary in other ways, either.
 A series of notes (actually, pitches abstracted from any register) that govern the pitch (melody and harmony) of a piece. There are as many ways of doing this are there are composers doing it. More, probably.
 A continuous, low sound.
 Imagine those professors trying to deal with student composers using sequencers, music-composing notation software, and the other music-generating tools available today.
 In much the same way that a great number of footnotes can up the old word count and mask a possible lack of much to say.
 Other than to make the professor’s job easier.
 Given a much fuller review by Phil Freeman here. Phil’s perspective is very different from mine, one that will be far more useful to most readers.
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