Michael Torke’s “October”: Autumn Music

Although usually free of a literal program, the music of the American composer, Michael Torke, is highly evocative. Even if we don’t share the composer’s experience of synesthesia, in which musical keys are involuntarily associated with specific colors, Torke’s suite of Color Music from the 1980s makes us feel the essence of green, bright blue, and ecstatic orange. Other orchestral pieces such as Run (1992) and Javelin (1994) convey an exhilarating sense of motion, while December suggests a frigid ballet of ice pellets on hard surfaces.

October, a single-movement work composed in 2017, is in this vein. Scored for bass clarinet, two violins, viola, and cello, the piece can be enjoyed strictly as absolute music. Its infectious rhythmic groove and reliable pulse captures the jubilant swing of contemporary pop music. Its teeming counterpoint is made up of digital patterns from the computer age. It unfolds as a vibrant, playful dance of weaving voices in which the bass clarinet moves freely in and out of the texture. At moments, the instrumental conversation turns nostalgic.

At the same time, a distinctly autumnal feeling pervades the piece. In his program notes, the composer writes,

When the air gets that snap of cold, accompanied by the smell of burning leaves, and the days are shortening, and the frisson of decay is met with glorious fall colors, a happy/sad feeling emerges, which calls to mind the inevitable changing of seasons, a cyclical melancholy, but a sharpness too—it is not all loss, because we might just as soon enjoy the comfort and expectation of bringing out that favorite jacket worn only in autumn, and after winter, the thaw of spring follows. Can such feelings be captured in music? If there ever were an instrument that could convey such sentiments, it is the bass clarinet, with its rich, yearning timbre, which can at all at once be quite frightening and aggressive.  Combining this instrument with string quartet is an effective mixture of sounds, an ideal orchestrational palette for a composer, so when Bruce Belton contacted me to write such a quintet, I was enthusiastic. I thank him and the Friction Quartet for bringing this piece into the world.

My music tends to be driven by rhythm; I try to discover the forward impulse inherent in a musical idea. In October, I take a simple arpeggio, and treat it cellularly, meaning that I start with only a fraction of the arpeggio, and in each repetition, restore more and more notes, so that the end of eight repetitions, we hear the entire complement.  This becomes the basis of a structure that can easily be heard. Another feature I use is augmentation. An original figure presented twice as long has the characteristic of a contrasting mood—more expressive or languid—almost as if it were new material, but in fact it isn’t new at all, it contains all the same notes, but stretched out twice as long. “Same but different” is a mantra I return to in all my work, to build cohesion in a composition. Putting aside technical strategies of construction, ultimately it is the mood of our tenth month that I try to express, in a single movement, culminating in a dramatic restatement of the theme at the very end.


  • Torke: October, Jeff Anderle, Friction Quartet Amazon

Featured Image: photograph by iStockphoto 

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

Leave a Comment