They Will Take My Island

For for 10 players
Arshile Gorky: They Will Take My Island (1944) oil on canvas
Manhattan, New York
to Max Lifchitz
February, 7th 2010
Manhattan, NY
North/South Consonance Orchestra; Max Lifchitz, conductor
View Score

They Will Take My Island - Program Note by Max Lifchitz

They Will Take My Island
by Max Lifchitz

It was indeed a great pleasure to learn during the autumn months of 2008 that composer Robert Martin had accepted an invitation to write a new work to mark the 30th anniversary of the North/South Consonance concert series.

Well ahead of the agreed deadline, a copy of the score for They Will Take My Island arrived in the mail in late May. Without delay, Martin’s recently completed score made its way onto the music rack of my piano. And I immediately began reading through it, playing as many of its contrapuntal lines as my fingers could manage to grab.

Approximately 12 minutes in length, the single-movement work inspired by Arshile Gorky’s masterful painting They Will Take My Island, is a virtuosic tour de force for two quintets: one made up of string instruments (2 violins, viola, cello and double bass) and the other consisting of wind instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon).

While Martin’s new dectet provides the performers with ample opportunity for technical display, the music also offers the adventurous listener a most stimulating and moving listening experience.

Like warm wind currents approaching from different directions, the music’s whispering, undulating melodic lines encircle and captivate the listener at the outset. These somewhat capricious melodic lines—interrupted unexpectedly by rich harmonies in different registers—undergo easy-to-grasp gradual transformations throughout. Shifts in articulation and tempo guide the ear into unexpected vistas and sonorities. The composer’s fastidious use of register and graceful manipulation of instrumental amalgamations generate an ever-changing music texture, clearly articulating an emotive and moving rhythmic and harmonic structure.

Martin’s compositional style reveals rigorous craft and respect for tradition. Perhaps, his music is somewhat oblivious of recent stylistic trends. However, it sounds distinctively personal and modern.

It is with great anticipation that I am looking forward to conducting the premiere of Robert Martin’s fine new work on February 7, 2010. I am certain that its debut will be met with much interest and acclaim by both the musician members of the North/South Chamber Orchestra musicians as well as by our sophisticated audience. I do hope the work will eventually be taken up by other performing ensembles and make its way into recordings so that it may reach and touch an international public.


  • They Will Take My Island / Mike Strizic

    05 DECEMBER 2012

    Modern classical music is primarily a consort of the modern musical elite, with little to no basis in consumer demand. It is more often than not the product of a graduate thesis, or commissioned by an eccentric for equally eccentric ends. They Will Take My Island by Robert Martin is one such project.

    At this juncture I should clarify two things: first, I am woefully under qualified to be making aesthetic judgements on music of this kind and caliber. You know what? I retract that. I like music, dammit, and I write about it, so I’ll comment all I want. (The second disclaimer is simply to inform that this is not a new work, as such.) Martin introduces his piece as follows:

    “In late 2008, Max Lifchitz, conductor, composer and pianist asked me to compose a piece in honour of the 30th anniversary of the group and concert series he founded, the North/South Consonance.” Martin draws his title from a painting by Arshile Gorky, and I admit that after the twelve seconds it took to track there work down, the base components of Martin’s assemblage become far easier to unpack. Anyone serious about digesting this composition would do well to do the same.

    Everyone on board? Excellent.

    Completed in May 2009, and premiering with the same orchestra it honours, They Will Take My Island, like Gorky’s painting, is all about splashes of colour. Disparate images. Urgency, exploration, surrealist expression. If the painting echoes the work of Miro in its wiry confusion and appetizing palette, its musical reciprocal evokes similar ideas. We are confined within a limited chamber framework (ten instruments, five of them strings, no percussion) and these disparate elements interact with the spindly, exacting touch of brush strokes. Each flutter of paint on canvas is but a part of the observed whole, and so here Martin’s touch is evocative without falling back on an easily identifiable thematic centre with which to temper his centre. It is challenging stuff, surely.

    If Gorky evokes Miro, Martin’s piece carries echoes of Stravinsky. He has a penchant for enjambing odd triplets and irregular metrical structure against a straightforward time signature; at times cinematic, at other neurotic and grating. Unexpected interruptions of rich harmonies and differing textures (the welcome addition of proud french horn exposition against a backdrop of frenetic, cascading woodwinds for example) pepper the work. Perhaps the best quality of the work is its continual tension between evocative rhythmic texture and ever-changing harmonic structure. Martin shows an undeniable respect for tradition and a clear concision when it comes to compositional force. Other modern composers have been content to let dissonance do their work for them, with little thought to resolving that dissonance into a cohesive whole. Martin, by contrast, appears to firmly grasp the summative nature of his work – he refuses to shoehorn his material into formulae that do not enhance its essentially expressionist nature, and for that I applaud him.

    They Will Take My Island is well worth a look, particularly for those among you who would speak disparagingly of contemporary composition as a jumble of shock-value aesthetics vying for position as heir to the modernist throne. At a scant twelve minutes it is impressively dense, and yet there is a tendency toward echoing space between the notes that, much like the blank spaces of a canvas, invite the question of how to fill the void. Martin gives his listener as much credit as that, and more.

    – Mike Strizic // Music

Past Performances of They Will Take My Island

2010-02-10, 3:00 PMChrist and St. Stephens Church, Manhattan, NY USAMax Lifchitz, North/South Consonance
2011-01-10, 9:00 AMNorth South Recording (N/S R 1057), Purchase, NY USAMax Lifchitz, North/South Consonance
2012-10-29, 7:25 PMRadio Arts Indonesia, Indonesia, __ Max Lifchitz, North/South Consonance