Title: Symphony No. 1 “Transient Energies”
Year Completed: 2010
Duration: 45 mins
Instrumentation: Orchestra 2222/2200/timp+1/str (with electronic soundscape controlled by a computer)
Credits: Funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, Arts Nova Scotia, and CBC Radio 2
Premiere: April 7, 8 & 10, 2011 Halifax and Lunenburg, Nova Scotia: Symphony Nova Scotia, Bernhard Gueller

Purchase/Rent: Canadian Music Centre

Note: the required Max/MSP patch for the soundscape is available directly from the composer. Please contact the composer through the Canadian Music Centre.

Symphony No. 1 – Transient Energies, composed in 2010, is a work for orchestra and electronic sound that takes its inspiration and source material from the generation and use of energy in Nova Scotia. This work can be seen as an artistic statement on global warming and the dire affect power consumption has on the natural world. Mapping original sound files, processed sound files and the abstract gestures of these sounds (convolution) onto and amongst the instruments of the orchestra I've created what I like to refer to as the "Hyper–Earth–Instrument", a combination live orchestra and soundscape of energy. To further enhance this concept live sounds from the coast may be broadcast during the end of the third movement. Individual movements focus on a singular aspect of power generation. By focusing on particular sound-worlds I’d like to think I am creating a scale, or a chord (by analogy) that becomes integral to the language of the work. Nova Scotia uses a combination of wind, hydro, tidal, coal, natural gas and oil. Ultimately all forms of energy production have an impact on the environment.

I’ve selected three broad themes: (1) coal, (2) wind & water (renewable resources) and (3) crude oil. There are four movements. Oil is featured in both the first and last. In the first, oil is heard as traffic sounds. In the fourth, oil is heard as primordial gurgling and other effects. Coal is heard as shoveling and other sounds related to coal production; trains, whistles and water for example. Rotations, the third movement, is in reference to the rotation of blades on a wind turbine, or a turbine in the water, but it also refers to the “rotation” or recycling of renewable resources. The sub-title "Transient Energies" refers to the state of unrest that energy finds itself in. This work is not just for orchestra alone. It includes a soundscape of energy sounds that essentially become another instrument, or at times an entire section of instruments. By focusing on similar kinds of sounds a mental image can be pictured, a "cinema for the ears" if you like, similar to a film. Naturally every listener will have different images, each one being correct in their own way. By directing our attention to a particular kind of sound, for a particular length of time, a chance to become familiar and immersed in a certain vocabulary is offered. Ultimately there is no program to this music, only sound and the transformation of this sound over time.

I find ecological sound fascinating. The rhythms, textures and harmonies of nature are impressive. There are endless variations, crystalline structures that branch out in all directions. Man-made sounds on the other hand can be overpowering, full of piercing frequencies and unpleasant, jolting rhythmic patterns. Many of the sounds for this piece are man-made. I did this intentionally. Sounds created through human energy consumption are quite varied. Using a soundscape with the orchestra allows me to explore textures that are impossible to produce with acoustic instruments on their own. For this work I searched for those sounds that have distinctive qualities; certain pitches, rhythms and recognizable features, such as the sound of passing traffic, a train whistle, shoveling rocks and steam; for example. I transformed these sounds so they straddle the line of recognizability often skewing and stretching them; breaking them apart before reworking the sounds into something else entirely. A particular example is the opening car horn. The entire musical sequence that you hear was created from a single blast of a horn. It was manipulated, improvised in a sampler eventually creating the extended musical passage. Sounds are created in several ways; recorded in the field, recorded in my studio, created electronically in the computer, or normally a combination of all three. The final soundscape is broken into over 400 sound-files that are activated at precise moments, indicated in the score, with the instruments.

(1) The first movement “Highways” is slow and melancholic. It opens with traffic sounds from Highway 101 near Kentville, Nova Scotia. A car horn introduces the work. The orchestra plays ascending and descending scales in an aeolian mode that moves throughout the ensemble, resembling the passing cars and creating spatialization amongst the instruments, similar to the moving vehicles. Interruptions from the brass occurs at moments where this scale is transformed, shifting three times from the aeolian mode, to the phrygian, the locrian and finally returning to a different phrygian mode. A lyric cello solo eventually builds to a high point, accompanied by other instruments, before dying away again to reveal the traffic once more.

(2) The second movement, Coal, is in its own way a kind of the sonata-allegro. It’s fast. It has several themes. It has a development, although a more through-composed and improvisatory kind, and a recapitulation that builds to a final climactic moment. The end is almost a turning off of sorts; a fizzling out of the soundtrack. There are over 200 sound-files (for this movement alone) that are activated, on cue, during the live performance. A majority of the sounds are created from shoveling rocks in my backyard. Other sounds come from train whistles, clacking sounds, band saws, the hum of electric lights, water, granularized sounds of rocks and many synthesized sounds. In this movement the sound of rocks (coal) and trains (coal carts and coal transportation) become the backdrop for the orchestra.

(3) Movement three begins in a triple meter. A strangely mutilated image of a waltz – the waltz of the wind turbine! Throughout this movement you will hear this rotating wind turbine (recorded in Pubnico, near Yarmouth, Nova Scotia). Other rotational sounds such as processed sounds of motors, wind and water are heard. The woodwind instruments perform complicated air sounds, aeolian types of gestures that mimic the rotation of the wind. Doppler effects are mimicked on the strings through the use of glissando and other effects such as ponticello. The brass (trumpets and horns) play a chorale behind these rotations. Eventually a quasi-variation form emerges taking us on a journey through this land of wind. Water sounds take over as we move from land to sea, and by the end we return once again to the glissando doppler effects on the strings, but this time with water as the backdrop. A transition to the last movement involves improvisation on the doppler sounds as the water transforms into oil.

(4) The last movement is called “Crude”, as in crude oil. Primordial sludge, gurgling sounds, created by boiling water and squeezing ketchup out of the bottle, opens the work. Lovely! Steam, an ubiquitous energy that has been utilized well before the invention of electricity and a by-product of many sources of energy production/consumption, is also heard throughout this movement. Sounds are transformed to the point of gurgling sludge, the sound I envision crude oil makes as it moves. Power generators, two oil power-plants from Acadia University, and an old diesel generator are heard at times. This last movement slowly builds in energy, gradually increasing in tempo. The main theme emulates a gamelan melody. It starts off polytonal, that is in two keys at the same time. There is a struggle between these opposing forces, until finally the true key is revealed at the end. This last movement is perhaps best described as Ravel’s Bolero meets gamelan and minimalism! During the final minutes, traffic sounds re-emerge as the work returns to its beginning and fades into the distance.

“His ear for instrumental tone as well as the shimmering timbres of natural sounds of automobiles, wind turbines, flowing water, gurgling oil, shovelled coal and the clatter of trains over buzzing steel rails is amazingly acute and all-inclusive... Consistently and forcefully, Charke marshalled them into order, while maintaining firm artistic control of imagery, shape and playability... Moments of extraordinary tranquility, as in the mystical vision at the end of the hectic fourth movement, echoed through the Mahler-esque cello solo, played so expressively by principal cellist Norman Adams in the melancholy first movement.” – Stephen Pedersen, The Chronicle Herald


Electronic soundscape controlled by a laptop computer in the orchestra.

2 Flutes (both flutes double piccolo)
2 Oboes (2nd doubles english horn)
2 Bb Clarinets (2nd doubles bass clarinet)
2 Bassoons (2nd doubles contrabassoon)

2 Horns in F
2 Trumpets in C (Both trumpets optional doubling on piccolo trumpet in A or Bb)


Violin 1
Violin 2
Double Bass

derek charke symphony no 1 transient

Watch an introduction to the work with Bernhard Gueller (link opens in new window)